In 1995, the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (G.T.A.I.) of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) removed the “Muckers” Group from their list of approved A.A. groups because their particular approach to Twelve Step recovery.(1) Furthermore, A.A. ejected two members from elected positions in a Toronto-based treatment center for advocating the “Mucker” creed.(2) In 2011, the G.T.A.I removed two A.A. agnostic groups, “We Agnostics” and “Beyond Belief”. Both Groups were eliminated from the G.T.A.I. Meeting Directory and ceased to be recognized as legitimate A.A. Groups.
In this paper, I argue that these two incidents reflect fundamentalist reactions within A.A. to an increasing presence of secular recovery ideology and methodology emerging in the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous. I propose that these fundamentalist responses are boundary maintenance of A.A.’s canonized beliefs and practices that are vital to the identity and recovery of A.A. members. By using an anthropology of fundamentalism, I will show that A.A. fundamentalism reflects an antirelativist stance intolerant of ambiguous boundaries and seeks exclusivity by labeling anything different as “other”. Furthermore, by identifying the roles fundamentalists play in A.A. controversies, I will show that three varieties of Fundamentalisms will emerge: 1) Organizational-Ritual Fundamentalism, 2) Socio-Cultural Fundamentalism and 3) Theological-Supernaturalistic Fundamentalism.(3)
The original Members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined their ideological and behavioural distinctiveness by establishing specific borders that differentiate A.A. from other organizations. But, as the fellowship grew and factions within the A.A. culture evolved, the creedal and ritual prescriptions that outlined A.A.’s original boundaries became more ambiguous. For this paper, I will use Talcott Parsons’ concept of Fundamentalism, which is explained as a resistance to changes to an organization’s boundary values and any attempt by various factions within the social system to demand wider and more general boundaries would be met with opposition and labeled as abandoning the fundamental tenets of organization. This is what Parsons would define as Fundamentalism.(4) Studies in Christian Fundamentalism have revealed that boundary values are related to the background characteristics of a particular sect or group and that these boundary values have different meanings to different factions with the social system.(5) By clarifying these background characteristics, I will reveal specific boundary markers to indicate where the particular Fundamentalist lines are drawn within A.A.
The organization of Alcoholics Anonymous was born in 1939 with the publication of its own book entitled, Alcoholics Anonymous: the story of how one hundred men and women had recovered from alcoholism. The main purpose of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous is to show those who suffer from alcoholism precisely how to recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.(6) With the publication of their “Big Book”—the A.A. membership’s moniker for their Twelve Step recovery textbook—the original group of one hundred recovered alcoholics grew to over 8,000 members and by the close of 1941 A.A. had become a national institution.(7) The common solution, which is described in the first 164 pages of the Big Book, contains the A.A. recovery program and has remained intact and unchanged throughout the second, third and fourth editions due to its recovery success rate among suffering alcoholics.(8) Success rates reported by A.A. members in the 1940’s claimed 50% of those who came into the rooms of A.A. achieved immediate and sustained sobriety; 25% sobered up after a few relapses and those who kept coming back to A.A. showed improvement.(9)
The 1940’s were tumultuous times for A.A., creating various schisms within the fellowship over membership, leadership and money, all of which threatened to dismantle the organization. How could these exponentially growing numbers of alcoholics be expected to come together and stay unified? Just as A.A. discovered principles by which the suffering alcoholic could recover, A.A. also realized that it needed to create a set of tenets by which groups and the organization as a whole could unify. Thus the fellowship ratified the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1950 at the first International A.A. Conference in Cleveland.(10) In 1953, A.A. published the book, “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” (12 & 12). Both the Big Book of A.A. and the 12 and 12 formed the canon of A.A. literature.
The Big Book clearly demarcates A.A.’s ideological boundaries. Key subjects include: what is alcoholism and who is an alcoholic, where and how to find a Higher Power, the role of fellowship, the role of sponsorship, and the purpose of A.A. Group meetings. The Twelve Traditions establishes clear behavioural boundaries for relations within and outside the A.A. fellowship, including boundaries over membership, group activities, primary purpose, affiliations, money and authority.
In a 1996 Maclean’s article entitled, “The Muckers say A.A. has lost its course”, the Muckers were described as having a “zealous approach to recovery from addiction that excludes anything but the twelve step method.”(11) The more traditional members of A.A. were critical of the Muckers, describing their recovery approach as too narrow and arrogant because the Muckers claim their way was the only “right way” to recover.
My interviews with Mucker informants, reveal that they are Big Book Fundamentalists. Many Muckers claim that they almost died in the rooms of A.A. because they could not stay sober on “watered-down” A.A. meetings, treatment or group therapy. But, many recovered, achieving spiritual, mental and physical well-being as result of being “mucked” through the Big Book. Mucker methodology centers on a type of Organizational-Ritual Fundamentalism, known as “booking, or being booked”, which demands literal adherence to the Twelve Step instructions as outlined in the first 103 pages of the Big Book. Working in dyads, Muckers have the newcomer read aloud from the first 103 pages of the Big Book. As the newcomer reads, the Mucker will tell the newcomer to circle and/or highlight specific words or phrases. Also, in a kind of textual exegesis, the Mucker will interpret passages and instruct the newcomer to make specific notes directly into their Big Book margins, hence the term, “mucking the Big Book”. The “mucking process” takes approximately 30 to 40 hours by which the newcomer will experience a spiritual awakening powerful enough to eliminate the newcomer’s desire to drink alcohol and thus, recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. The newcomer then, to maintain their new-found ability to resist the urge to drink alcohol, must instruct other newcomers in the “mucker” methodology.
Muckers affirm that they are “real alcoholics” and believe for the “real alcoholic” to recover, they must experience an awakened God-consciousness by vigorously working the Twelve Steps in a short period of time. Three boundaries are clearly demarcated by the Muckers: 1) alcoholic identity, 2) recovery by spiritual conversion, and 3) the length of time it takes to recover.
Identification as an alcoholic is a key component to the A.A. recovery program. The Big Book clearly defines an alcoholic as someone who, 1) honestly wants to stop drinking but cannot stay permanently abstinent and, 2) someone who, when sober, starts to drink, cannot control the amount consumed.(12) Furthermore, the “real” alcoholic is beyond human aid and is left with only two options: One, to surrender to the idea that nothing can be done and that death or insanity is inevitable; or two, accept and seek spiritual help.(13) Muckers vehemently defend the Big Book’s definition of an alcoholic, stating anyone who claims to have a drinking problem is not necessarily an alcoholic. Muckers reiterate that the “hard” drinker, is not an alcoholic; although the hard drinker may appear to drink like an alcoholic, given sufficient reason, such drinkers can stop or moderate on human power. As real alcoholics, Muckers define the hard-drinker as “other” than real alcoholics, labeling them as “dangerous”. Muckers clearly draw a line in the sand that “hard drinkers” are not welcome in A.A. On the other hand, mainstream A.A. is far more inclusive, citing Tradition Three: “The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”(14) An online article entitled, “Beware: Hard Drinkers & Fakers Inside!” amplifies the Mucker’s concerns: “They offer opinions (instead of Book-based facts) and their opinions will kill us (real alcoholics) if we listen to them and follow their advice instead of the Book’s. They do not have to adhere to the “rules” (as we must) in order to live. Their strain of the disease is not necessarily fatal—as is ours if we do not follow the rules precisely.”(15) The Mucker’s Socio-Cultural Fundamentalism clearly opposed mixing hard drinkers with real alcoholics in the rooms of A.A.
Muckers identify the alcohol treatment centre industry as another area of controversy. Muckers accuse the treatment centres with flooding the rooms of A.A. with “hard drinkers”—drinkers who can stay sober on secular approaches such as, “don’t drink and go to meetings” and practicing avoidance strategies, such as compiling a “trigger” list of people, places and things that initiate the urge to drink. Furthermore, Muckers also accuse the hard drinkers of turning A.A. meetings into “group therapy without a therapist”. A 1995 article by “The New Yorker” clarifies this accusation: “Inheritors of the Big Book sponsorship tradition find themselves a minority perspective within the rapidly growing recovery culture. Generally, Big Book sponsors are unhappy with the prevailing presentation of the Twelve Steps. Some see the recovery culture as: proliferating victim groups, a sort of endless Oprah Winfrey show that claims the A.A. Twelve Step method as its inspiration, but in which the real meaning of the Twelfth Step is lost amid an incessant whine about the injured self.”(16) Muckers are at odds with the treatment centres and their professional counselors and pharmacotherapists who advocate for their secular addiction behavioural models and chronic relapse prevention programs whereby the alcoholic is always recovering never recovered. These centres advocate long term treatment measured in months and years.(17) The Mucker’s Theological-Supernaturalistic Fundamentalism adheres to the notion that only a spiritual intervention, not secular treatment or professional therapy, can solve the alcoholic’s dilemma.
Similar to other strong textual traditions, such as Christianity, the central issue for the Muckers is doctrinal, which leads to categorical, formulaic thinking.(18) The Mucker’s Organization-Ritual Fundamentalism cleaves to the hegemony of the Big Book-their weapon of ideological conquest. In an uncompromising, antirelativist mind-set, Muckers are defenders of the book, vigorously protecting A.A.’s boundaries with their battle cry, “If it isn’t in the Big Book, then it isn’t A.A.” Ironically, it wasn’t the Muckers Big Book Fundamentalist approach to alcoholism that lead to their expulsion from the A.A. meeting directory. The Mucker Groups were delisted because their meetings were about recovery from “any and all addictions”. The Muckers had breached two of A.A.’s Traditions: Tradition Four: Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole; and Tradition Five: Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.(19) By their inclusivity to carrying their message to other types of addicts, the Muckers had widened one of A.A.’s sacred identity boundaries—A.A.’s singular focus: alcoholics working with other alcoholics. It was this infraction that aroused the antipathy of other A.A. Groups, thus compelling the G.T.A.I. to evoke their own Socio-Cultural Fundamentalism and protect its borders from integration with “other” addicts—A.A. was for alcoholics only! Thus, both factions represented different kinds fundamentalisms that polarized when specific boundaries within the A.A. social system were transgressed.
In a more recent A.A. controversy (June 2011), the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous (GTAI), voted to remove two A.A. Groups, “We Agnostics” and the “Beyond Belief” from the meeting directory which lists more than 300 weekly A.A. groups.(20) On March 27, 2012, I attended the monthly GTAI General Meeting where a motion to re-list the two agnostic groups in the meeting directory was defeated by a vote of 59 “against” to 19 “for”, reinforcing A.A. Group conscience that the two groups, “We Agnostics” and the “Beyond Belief” were not legitimate A.A.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states that A.A. is not a religious organization.(21) Members are encouraged to stress the spiritual aspect openly, emphasizing that if the prospect were an agnostic or atheist, they can choose any conception they like, provided it makes sense to that individual. The important thing is that the prospect is “willing to believe in a Power greater than themselves and that they live by spiritual principles.”(22) Members have attested they have discovered an inner resource that they identify as a Power greater than themselves and that this awareness of this sixth sense is the essence of a spiritual experience which the more religious members of A.A. call “God-consciousness.”(23)
Members of “We Agnostics” and the “Beyond Belief” commented about other A.A. meetings: “I’ve tried AA meetings and I couldn’t get past the influence of right-wing Christianity;” and “Last night I went to a meeting and it was like a sermon again.”(24) As a result, the two groups, “We Agnostics” and the “Beyond Belief” revised A.A.’s Traditional Twelve Steps(25) without God and replaced them with a secular interpretation of the Twelve Steps which they published to their own website.(26) An ensuing schism developed in the G.T.A.I. The result—both agnostic groups were delisted from the meeting directory. The issue is Tradition Four of A.A. which states: Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.(27) Had “We Agnostics” and the “Beyond Belief” Groups simply kept their secular notions to the Group, the matter never would have reached the Intergroup Level, but they crossed an important organizational-ritual boundary and affected other A.A. groups, and A.A. as a whole, because they revised A.A.’s canonized Twelve Steps of recovery and publicly announced their secular views on their website, aatorontoagnostics.org.(28) One member, who voted against re-listing the two groups said, “…the teaching and practice of the Twelve Steps is the sole purpose of an A.A. group. It does not say ‘from a set of Twelve Steps we choose to design ourselves’. The Twelve Steps of A.A. are the Twelve Steps. If they don’t like our program, perhaps they could develop their own as others have done. A.A. will be a model for them and they could adapt our principles to suit their needs.”(29) A.A. has allowed hundreds of other Twelve Step based groups to emulate the A.A. program of recovery, but they cannot call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous because they practice programs other than the sanctioned A.A. program as set out in its conference approved literature.
A.A.’s Organizational-Ritual Fundamentalist stance towards the two Agnostic Groups was a move to prevent any destabilization of A.A. core identity as a spiritual program. A.A.’s ontological security, that is, their security of being—their confidence and trust that the world of A.A. safe and sound was challenged by the emergence of another paradigm—the textual publication of a new secular Twelve Step program. A.A. identity has been developed and maintained by its canon of literature—The Big Book and the 12 and 12—which has provided a textual framework for consistent thought and feeling of biographical continuity that A.A. members use to sustain narratives of self and answer questions about doing, acting and being.(30) Alcoholics Anonymous is a figured world whereby its members must learn A.A.’s identity and cultural system. Several modes of learning include A.A. literature, sponsor relations and telling one’s personal story. In a study of identity formation in Alcoholics Anonymous Group(31), it was observed that newcomers to A.A. learn to appropriate their identity by listening to others tell their stories and then construct and tell their own personal story in the A.A. fashion of, “what they were like, what happened and what they are like today.”(32) Telling one’s story can be interactive in A.A. meetings. When “inappropriate” narratives are expressed, such as: using vulgar language, references to other addictions, use of non-conference approved literature, mentioning other Twelve Step fellowships—older members will challenge them, reinforcing a stereotypical set of A.A. motifs, tropes and concepts. The newcomer, by recalling what is deemed inappropriate and continuous reinforcement of what is appropriate by older members, the newcomer acquires their identity in the figured world of A.A.(33) When the “We Agnostics” and the “Beyond Belief” groups publicly published their own secular version of the Twelve Steps, the ontological security of the general A.A. membership was threatened, triggering an Organizational-Ritual response by the G.T.A.I. to eliminate the attempt by the two agnostic groups to widen the theological-supernaturalist boundaries of A.A.
In conclusion, how can this study of A.A. fundamentalism be used in a wider context of Christianity? By using a Parsonian approach to fundamentalism, the anthropologist can develop metrics to determine denomination-specific boundary values and by examining cross-sect controversies, understand how fundamentalism plays a vital role in the maintenance and evolution of a particular Tradition. This can help the anthropologist understand why such controversies emerge and predict how a specific denomination, sect or faction may change or remain static within the Tradition or influence other sects and denominations. For example, an analysis of the Mucker controversy showed that Traditional A.A. and the Muckers were in agreement on Theological-Supernaturalist values, i.e. “a spiritual program of action”, but demonstrated fundamental differences on Organization-Ritual and Socio-Cultural boundary values. The Muckers Big Book Fundamentalism resisted wider Organizational-Ritual boundaries, such as, A.A.’s tolerance of “meeting making” as a viable recovery approach. Yet, Traditional A.A. exhibited tolerance for the Mucker groups regardless of their fundamental views on recovery methodology, because they met A.A.’s membership criteria. However, when specific Socio-Cultural boundary values were crossed, such as the influx of “hard-drinkers”, the Muckers demonstrated a high degree of vocal intolerance to their inclusion in the fellowship, whereas Traditional A.A. challenged the membership status of Mucker Groups when their tactics for working with any and all addictions threatened the primary purpose and identity of A.A. With respect to the “Beyond Belief” and “We Agnostic” Groups, fundamental differences occurred on Theological-Surpernaturalist boundary values, with the agnostic groups demanding wider borders to include secular recovery perspectives. But, A.A. defended its “theological” borders and ousted the agnostic influence for crossing non-negotiable Organizational-Ritual boundaries. By using Parsons’ anthropology of Fundamentalism, we find that Fundamentalism is a complex and multi-faceted dynamic that cannot be simplified into a catchall pejorative label of factional intolerance and backwardness within a Tradition. We find instead, that there are varieties of Fundamentalisms within a specific Tradition and by applying a better anthropology of fundamentalism, anthropologists could eliminate ambiguous assumptions and discover important social and attitudinal characteristics that determine the course and evolution of a Tradition.
1. Alcoholics Anonymous. 59-60
2. Working in dyads, Muckers have the newcomer read aloud from the first 103 pages of the Big Book. As the newcomer reads, the Mucker will tell the newcomer to circle and/or highlight specific words or phrases. Also, in a kind of textual exegesis, the Mucker will interpret passages and instruct the newcomer to make specific notes directly into their Big Book margins, hence the term, “mucking the Big Book”. The “mucking process” takes approximately 30 to 40 hours by which the newcomer will experience a spiritual awakening powerful enough to eliminate the newcomer’s desire to drink alcohol and thus, recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. The newcomer then, to maintain their newfound ability to resist the urge to drink alcohol, must instruct other newcomers in the “mucker” methodology.
3. Ethridge and Feagin, “Varieties of ‘Fundamentalism’: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis of Two Protestant Denominations.” 42
4. Ibid. 39
5. Ibid. 47
6. Alcoholics Anonymous. xiii
7. Ibid. xviii
8. Ibid. xi
9. Ibid. xx
10. Ibid. xix
11. D’Arcy. Macleans Magazine. http://silkworth.net/magazine_newspaper/macleans_oct_21_1996.html
12. Alcoholics Anonymous. 44
13. Ibid. 25
14. Ibid. 562-566
15. Henderson, Floyd. Beware: Hard Drinkers & Fakers Inside! http://www.ppgaadallas.org/aa_articles.htm
16. Andrew Delbanco and Thomas Delbanco, Annals of Addiction, “A.A. AT THE CROSSROADS,” The New Yorker, March 20, 1995, p. 50
17. O’Brien, “Evidence-Based Treatments of Addiction.” 3277
18. Nagata, “Beyond Theology: Toward an Anthropology of ‘Fundamentalism’.” 483
19. Alcoholics Anonymous. 562-566
20. Leslie Scrivener. Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups. Friday, June 3, 2011. thestar.com. http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1002750—fight-over-god-splits-toronto-aa-groups?bn=1
21. Alcoholics Anonymous. xx
22. Ibid. 93
23. Ibid. 568
24. Leslie Scrivener. Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups. Friday, June 3, 2011. thestar.com. http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1002750—fight-over-god-splits-toronto-aa-groups?bn=1
25. Alcoholics Anonymous. 59-60
26. AA Toronto Agnostics: Secular 12 Steps. aatorontoagnostics.org http://aatorontoagnostics.org/the-12-steps-secular-version/
27. Alcoholics Anonymous. 562-566
28. AA Toronto Agnostics: Secular 12 Steps. aatorontoagnostics.org http://aatorontoagnostics.org/the-12-steps-secular-version/
29. Greater Toronto Intergroup General Meeting Agenda. Tuesday, March 27, 2012.
30. Kinnvall, “Globalization and Religious Nationalism: Self, Identity, and the Search for Ontological Security.”
31. Holland, Dorothy C. 1998. Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 66
32. Alcoholics Anonymous. 58
33. Holland, Dorothy C. 1998. Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 66
AA Toronto Agnostics. http://aatorontoagnostics.org
Alcoholics Anonymous: the Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001.
Andrew Delbanco and Thomas Delbanco, Annals of Addiction, “A.A. AT THE CROSSROADS,” The New Yorker, March 20, 1995, p. 50
D’Arcy, Jenish. BACK TO BASICS FOR ADDICTS: The Muckers say A.A. has lost its course. Macleans Magazine. October 21, 1996. Volume 109, Issue 43. p. 63 http://silkworth.net/magazine_newspaper/macleans_oct_21_1996.html
Ethridge, F. Maurice, and Joe R. Feagin. “Varieties of ‘Fundamentalism’: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis of Two Protestant Denominations.” The Sociological Quarterly 20, no. 1 (January 1, 1979): 37–48.
Henderson, Floyd. Beware: Hard Drinkers & Fakers Inside! 1997 http://www.ppgaadallas.org/aa_articles.htm
Holland, Dorothy C. Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Kinnvall, Catarina. “Globalization and Religious Nationalism: Self, Identity, and the Search for Ontological Security.” Political Psychology 25, no. 5 (October 1, 2004): 741–767.
Nagata, Judith. “Beyond Theology: Toward an Anthropology of ‘Fundamentalism’.” American Anthropologist 103, no. 2. New Series (June 1, 2001): 481–498.
O’Brien, Charles P. “Evidence-Based Treatments of Addiction.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1507 (October 12, 2008): 3277–3286.
Scrivener, Leslie. Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups. Friday, June 3, 2011. thestar.com. http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1002750—fight-over-god-splits-toronto-aa-groups?bn=1