Learning to believe in the God of Alcoholics Anonymous


Glenn Chesnut is a 12-step author. He gave speech to the Northern Indiana Counselors Association, which was later included in the book The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program: For Believers & Non-believers. It gives great insight into how AA manipulates people into believing their dogma. This speech has everything from circular logic to bait and switch recruiting tactics, so I thought that it would be interesting to examine. I’ve taken selected parts of the text, but the full text of the speech is available here.

This is Part One of three parts that I will post here in our blog:

From Glenn Chesnut’s speech:

“…at least 95% of alcoholics are totally hostile to organized religion in all its forms. Many of them are outright atheists: “There is no God, and the whole notion is a piece of absurd superstition, a crutch for the weak and ignorant.” Others are agnostics: “Well, maybe there’s a God, but I dunno. I’ve heard arguments both ways.”

How does he come with the figure of 95%? He just pulls it out of thin air. He actually has his figures ass-backwards. Alcoholics are no different than people within the general population who have no drinking problem, and the majority of people (Americans, at least) believe in God – a full 92%.

“My first observation is that no one — absolutely no one — learns to work the twelve-step program well, who has not cut the umbilical cord connecting them with their childhood religious beliefs. As an adult, you cannot truly go back to your childhood religious beliefs. Some people, when they begin the twelve-step program, make the mistake of trying to get a better grasp of the spiritual dimension of the program by going to church services or synagogue services, or reading the bible, or something like that. At best, this is totally ineffectual but comparatively harmless. But a lot of people who try it this way end up going back out and going back to their addiction…”

“…a lot of people who try it this way end up going back out and going back to their addiction….”

This is true. In fact, most will – just as most will go back to their addiction who work the steps, but he does not mention this. What he also does not mention is how this perception plays out in the world of AA. Those who do not work the steps and fail, are held up as examples of the consequences of not working the steps. Those who do work the steps and fail (the overwhelming majority) are ignored, or brushed off as though they don’t exist, or are explained away as not being “fully honest” or “giving entirely into the program.”

“In fact, many of the people who make this particular mistake are just trying to avoid working the twelve steps, because the churches and synagogues and mosques won’t force them to do that. The twelve-step program is the greatest outpouring of real spirituality in today’s world, where people make more progress, and far faster than anywhere else, in genuinely learning how to live the spiritual life. If you can’t recognize real spirituality when you see it right in front of your face in the twelve-step program, you’ll certainly never recognize it anyplace else.”

So it is critical not to give yourself over to your God, where you worship. Sitting at your alter and asking Him to help you by saying – “God, I am no longer in control. Only You can restore me to sanity. I am putting it all in your hands. Please remove my shortcomings and help me seek the forgiveness of others” – will not work. You must pray within the smoke filled confines of AA, or God will ignore you, just as He ignored you while you wasting your life away drinking, before you walked in the doors of AA; and, just as he will ignore you again if you leave AA.

“I’m talking about just the first year in A.A., because, interestingly enough, if we check back again after three years, and look at the survivors who have now been clean and sober for those three years, we will discover that perhaps as many as two-thirds of them are attending some kind of religious services on a regular basis by this point. But it is not always the religious denomination in which they were brought up as children — sometimes it’s something wildly different — and even if it is the religion of their childhood, they now see it through different eyes and hear it through different ears. And the most devout will insist the most strongly that no one else in the A.A. program needs to hold the beliefs or practices of their particular religious group.”

So after a year or so, the person has been effectively indoctrinated into the cult of AA. AA is effectively the person’s new religion.

“You learn A.A. spirituality at a deep level only by working through all the twelve steps. If there is anyone here today who is not a believer, you will get absolutely nothing from my talk which will turn you into a believer. The Higher Power of the twelve-step program is encountered only when you actually work the program, with complete honesty and total commitment, over an extended period of time. You have to work a lot of the program without understanding what you are doing while you are doing it. It is only after actually working the first eleven steps that we come to the twelfth step: ‘Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps.’ It’s another one of those great A.A. paradoxes: You have to practice the program until you can practically do it in your sleep. And then is when you wake up! Then is when it begins to dawn on you why you had to do some of those things that you did without really understanding what you were doing. And then you’re so grateful that you did it.”

These lines are telling:

“You have to work the program without understanding what you are doing while you are doing it,”and

“Then it begins to dawn on you why you had to done some of those things that you did without really understanding what you were doing. And then you are grateful you did it.”

This is a perfect description of brainwashing. It certainly is not akin to any kind of legitimate therapy. No doctor will say, “swallow this pill and go inside this machine and take this IV, and don’t ask questions”. Next, he goes on to give an example of “Lori C., who was coached into accepting a higher power by her sponsor:

“Lori C., who’s in both A.A. and N.A., remembers her sponsor taking her over to the window — it was early evening, during the winter — and saying to her: “Make the sun rise.” Lori said, “Huh?” Her sponsor said, “Make leaves grow on that tree.” Lori said, “Huh?” Her sponsor said, “So you’re willing to admit that there is something in this universe more powerful than you are?” That’s all a beginner has to recognize.”

This is nothing more than the preaching of religion, and not just any religion, but a religion that says “we are puppets on a string, controlled by God.” This is a slap in the face even to those who believe in a creator, but who also believe He has given us freewill. The sponsor’s point was that that which cannot be explained, has to be done by the hand of God. This is nothing more than a false dichotomy, asking “Can you make these leaves grow, or does God make these leaves grow?” The concept of natural selection never entered the conversation. Even if you acquiesce to the idea that your higher power is the force of nature, you would have to believe that the same force that causes wind or leaves to grow, will also keep you from drinking alcohol.

“So some atheists and agnostics, when they first enter the A.A. program, turn the word God into an acronym: G.O.D. is short for Good Orderly Direction. This is not a personal God of any sort, but it is something that they can make sense of. Most substance abusers, when they first enter the twelve-step program, have personal lives that have disintegrated into total chaos. At one level, they can see and understand this. And so the people in the program tell them: “Can you see the difference between putting a little bit of Good Orderly Direction into your life, instead of trying to live life in the totally chaotic, disorganized fashion you are attempting now? Well, just let that be your higher power for now.” There are many old-timers who began in just that way, and over the months and years that followed, they found that, little by little, G.O.D. turned into God, into an actual transcendent personal being who could not only give meaning to their lives, but also act in their lives.”

If you question whether AA wants to impose their religion on people, read this last paragraph carefully. Allowing a person to pick a higher power that suits them is a bait and switch measure, knowing that eventually the mind control tactics will kick in, the member will begin to believe in the god of AA:

“…little by little, G.O.D. turned into God, into an actual transcendent personal being who could not only give meaning to their lives, but also act on their lives.”

That quote is telling. The next paragraph is even more so:

“A month and a half ago, a newcomer said, “Well, I don’t know whether I believe in this God thing or not, but for now, I’m just trying to live by my conscience.” And the old-timers nodded, and made it clear that they thought that was a quite excellent position for him to take at this point.”

They nodded and made it clear that this was an excellent position to take at this point. Why at this point? Because they know with some work, this newbie will be converted. Bill Wilson wrote in the Big Book chapter about accepting agnostics:

“We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. “Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?” As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way. It has been repeatedly proven among us that upon this simple cornerstone a wonderfully effective spiritual structure can be built.”

This is bait and switch duplicity at its finest. Cults do this a matter of practice. They don’t accept atheists or agnostics, they just accept them temporarily, until they can program them to the thinking of the group. Get a person in under false pretenses, and then manipulate them into what you want them to be. He goes on to quote an Alanon member:

“After all, what I myself mean by the voice of God is what I hear my conscience telling me, and what I hear in meetings. God talks to me through my conscience, and through the words of the other people at the meeting.” And an A.A. old-timer nodded his head in agreement.”

AAers believe God talks through them. I mean, really, truly, literally believe this to be true. If you are speaking for God, you are acting for Him, as well; and any duplicity used in converting someone into the AA belief system is therefore justified, because it is the work of God.

“As a person actually honestly works the twelve steps over a period of time, that person will undergo a radical personal transformation. It will show up in the person’s inner attitudes, which in turn will change the person’s emotional affect. And that in turn will alter the way the person interacts with other people.”

Notice the term “actually honestly”. This is their out for those who fail. They did not “honestly work the program”. This is heard ad nauseum.

“It is the other people who usually notice it first. After a few months in the program, an alcoholic runs into someone he knew before, and spends some time with that other person. At the end, the other person says something like, “You know, you seem like a totally different person now. I really like the way you are now!” Then the recovering alcoholic starts to notice that when he experiences things which used to make him angry, he reacts with just momentary minor irritation, and sometimes even fails to notice it at all. Situations which used to totally throw him for a loop, he now sails through with only minor discomfort. It finally begins to dawn on him that he is experiencing within himself such attributes as compassion, patience, unselfish giving of himself, and forgiveness. But these are the very attributes which the old-timers tell him are the characteristics of the higher power.”

Remember that, as with the sponsor who was telling her pupil that God is the hand behind the rising sun and the growing leaves, any positive change in the demeanor of an AAer is a result of a higher power. If you cannot explain it, God did it. The problem in this scenario is that it can be explained. It is attributable to sobriety. Anyone who has quit drinking can tell you how much better they feel, both physically and emotionally, by simply not living life on the sauce. It isn’t a higher power creating the serenity. It is the liver, adrenals, relationships and bank account that are no longer being taxed that create this greater sense of well being.

“When some people first enter the A.A. program, they choose what they call “the spirit of the tables” as their higher power. By that they mean what a person feels, experiences, and hears while attending a good twelve-step meeting…. So taking the spirit of the tables, or the A.A. program itself, as your higher power, is a beginner’s starting point which has repeatedly been shown to work quite excellently. A beginner who has no faith in God, but feels somehow that he can trust one or more of the old-timers around the table, can handle things for a long time that way, as long as this trust can supply the impetus to actually start working the steps.”

Again, this is the old “bait and switch.” In this case, just make the group your higher power as a stand-in, until you have been fully indoctrinated.

(End of part I)

  • speedy0314


    your critiques/essays are always cogent, thorough, & even-handed. as convincing as i find most of orange's arguments, he leans at times a little toward the polemical & i find myself put off by it — at least initially.

    (i guess that's kind of a back-handed compliment, huh?)

    any who … you know the response you'd get from the typical (or even lukewarm) AA true-believer, right? "Gary Chesnut does not speak for AA"; "The BB & 12X12 are mere suggestions"; "I'm an atheist and yada yada yada …" — the phenemenon someone on the boards cheekily called 'the amazing disappearing AA'.

    bob had a very (far more conventional, Protestant) understanding of god than did bill (he seemed to believe in some amalgamation of the biblical god, native american 'universal spirit', hocus-pocus afterlife ruling entity, & any damned thing that hit him as 'spiritual' at the time … like LSD). still bill's convoluted conception was always described as some singular, anthropomorphized, intervening uber-being … who was all good. in two hundred years some academic is going to be reading the BB & writing up a paper on how it was instrumental in turning the american theological mind toward paganism.

    i haven't read the pew survey — just some of the press about it. this country seems to be going through one of its extended theologically schizophrenic periods, much like it did during the 'atheist red scare' of the cold war. in the face of a disembodied 'war on terror' & a crushing economic crisis the american dream has been drained of much of its inherent personal meaning.

    in my opinion, that's what most people are talking about when they talk about 'god' — even those muddled american 'atheists'. consciousness/mind works best when it's got an underlying sense of meaning/purpose/pattern. emotion & rationality seem to work in just that order: we 'feel' something, then draw conclusions or make decisions based on that. that doesn't mean we're slaves to emotion; it just means we have to be aware of its place in the decision-making process.

    even the most ardent believers (12X12 or otherwise) believe in the 'god of the gaps' (e.g., what make the sun rise?). frankly, i think it's part of a larger move finally & completely away from organized religion for a significant number of people. it took thousands of years for 'the gods' to become 'god'. it's going to take a while (if not forever) for god to go away completely.

    again, just my opinion, but most AA's 'work' a totally freelance 'program' — cafeteria style: a touch of 4th step here, dash of 'day at a time' there, side of 'don't drink & go to meetings', & a big helping of 'serenity now'. that's the bottom-up view. Chesnut can blather all he wants & a few hundred heads may nod at all the right points. still, most have completely forgotten his happy horseshit if not an hour or two after his presentation then definitely a week after. then, it's back to what 'works' — which is ever maleable.

    AA's own infrastructure won't allow for the rise of any more great prophets. bill wilson is dead & he took the unadorned word of god with him. contemporary AA really is just members & meetings — most of them little more than high school rallies for 'sobriety'. AA is running out of gas just like the ancient notion of the singular monotheistic god. anybody looking to bring AA as a whole (or in large part) back to jesus (ala dick b.) or the biblical god — as slippery a being as he is (Chesnut) is tilting at windmills.

    the amazing disappearing god is coming head-to-head with the amazing disappearing AA. sooner or later, reasonably intelligent people (however much they may have damaged themselves through drinking/drugging) will find the irrationality of the whole thing. they may go to meetings for 'fellowship', but very few are really 'working the program as its written in the first 164 pages of the BB'. others find 'the secret' & think positive thoughts before heading out the door. most just walk out the door within the first 90 days — no matter how many goes at 'the first 90' they might make.

    AA's got a lot of competition in the hocus-pocus arena. it tries to subsume it, but that's doomed to failure. it's headed for irrelevance & the people at AAWS know it. even that fuckhead 'medical director' squawking about 'spiritual components' to disease at hazelden knows it. the tent show is folding — slowly, perhaps, but folding nevertheless.

    under the weight of its own ultimate meaninglessness.

    • M A

      Thank you, Speedy.

      AA makes it very easy to pick apart.

  • It is a very refreshing thing to see others speaking out against what we feel is wrong with AA. J and I have had many discussions about our involvement in the AA truth movement, and at several times felt that we needed to keep speaking out on our own in order to justify ourselves and what we were doing. Now that we have stepped beyond that, we both feel an immense freedom, but are still happy that there are still people out there who continue to speak out so that others that were in our position can find the freedom that we have. And I think I can safely say these things, and also that we have a certain sense of pride in being a part of the awakening from the mind-numbing propaganda put out by 12-step organizations.

    Best wishes to you in the future, and keep up the good work,

    Eric of the Recovering from Recovery blog

    • speedy0314

      good to see/hear from you texan. been following your blogs on & off — figured it best to respect your decision & stayed mum.

      any way, i hope all is well with you. and i hope you don't go completely silent on the issue. yours' was a fierce, fearless, & cogent voice of dissent — but, more importantly, reason.



    • M A

      Hey, Eric.

      I went back and read your blog. I enjoyed what I read. Like you, I will one day get this off my chest and move on. Still, I do care about people gaining sobriety, and I know that there are better ways out there. We are just trying to change our little corner of the world.

  • limestoneblocks

    About a month into my outpatient therapy program and about 2 months after I was in a hospital detox ward I wrote an essay on what the “We Agnostics” chapter meant to me. My counselor at the time thought it would be good idea for me to write an essay on the “We Agnostics” chapter in the Big Book because I was “struggling” with the higher power concept. I think she expected me to come to my senses or something but what I handed in was an essay all about bait and switch tactics and contradictions. I don’t think she was pleased. What I find funny is that even 2 months away from the drink and the drugs I was able to see clearly through all of this BS. 2 years later I still get in debates with my AA friends over this stuff. Well done, I really enjoyed the read!!

  • MA

    As an interesting side-note to this post, Glenn Chestnut and Dick B are in a real serenity battle. Glenn has banned Dick B from their internet group, and Dick threw quite the tantrum about the whole thing here in our comments section. Nothing is more fulfilling than seeing a couple of serenity hornets yelling at each other over who is the least resentful.

  • I believe that one of the things that AA uses to “addict” you to the program is the endorphin stimulation they practice at the end of each meeting. Whether you are agnostic or not, you can not help but feel the opiate sense of well being caused by a group of people all holding hands and chanting the “Lords prayer” at the end of each meeting. As a kicker to the addiction to meetings they are giving you, the addition of “Keep coming back, it works if you work it” at the very end where people shake thier hands up and down gives a very effective endorphin rush.

    This action, which is pretty much universal in any of the meetings I have been to, gives the participant a type of “high” that they want to continue, as often as possible. It is always at the end of the meeting and leaves the member wanting more and a reminder where to get it.

  • betty

    Last week it was suggested that I share “an honest inventory about God.” So I guess in questioning AA and pulling away from it all, I must have wronged God and now owe God an amends? I’m confused. What?

  • SoberPJ

    Betty? Did you have sex with gawd? What was YOUR part in it? Were you being selfish, dishonest and inconsiderate? Write that down …

  • causeandeffect

    Betty, did you post on the Why I Left AA thread yet? If so, I’m sorry I didn’t see it. SoberPJ, shame on you! LOL

  • Amy

    The endorphin stimulation from holding hands and chanting at the end of the meeting? That never happened to me. I was always uncomfortable with that ritual. I was even more uncomfortable after picking up influenza and bad colds from holding strangers hands. I started to keep hand sanitizer in my purse and using it immediately after the meeting ended.