One Big Tent

By John Huey

One Big Hoax” – A view of the book ‘One Big Tent’ published by AA Grapevine.

This was quite an onerous task that took some time to complete and it is, given how bad a book this is, something I would not have taken on had the errors and misrepresentations embodied in this work been of less consequence.

The volume in hand, ‘One Big Tent’, misses, in every respect, both its stated intention and its supposed purpose. My goal here, given these soon to be made obvious deficiencies, will be to impute its true meaning as derived from its text though the meaning is obscured (purposely I believe) and presented with a hidden agenda in mind. The clarification of the books true meaning will, hopefully, clarify its actual intent.

As the editors say in the introductory front matter entitled ‘Welcome’ it is their intent to provide “proof that the program is spiritual and not a religion” and that “As I went through the Steps, I came to believe in a higher purpose, not a higher being.” and that “My higher purpose is to live by the principles of the Steps.” They then go on to say, “These are the hallmarks of sobriety, available to each of us in AA as we recognize our common suffering and pursue, ever more fully, our common solution.”  What is not addressed, on any of these pages, is the member who categorically rejects their so called “Steps” and any and all concepts defined, in any manner, as “spirituality.”

As to the substance of their assertion that the program is “spiritual” and not a religion I have a simple, all purpose, one-word reply. Bullshit!

On virtually every page of this turgid, poorly constructed tome there are endless religiously inspired comments (many direct from the 1933 Four Practical Spiritual Activities of the Oxford Group and the original, pre-Big Book, Akron Alcoholic Squadron of that group) such as, “the group felt he was reeking with spirituality. He just didn’t know it yet.” “I came to believe that God and Good were synonymous.” “I have a higher power, what I lack is a definition”, “I have to practice daily meditation.”, “Be still and know that I am God.”, “I use a wide range of spiritual readings including many of the books Dr. Bob had on his bookshelf.”, “I just had to stop fighting and accept everything.”, “I was told I probably needed to change every aspect of how I acted and reacted and that the AA Steps and the program could help me.”, “The second Step was my vital spiritual journey”, “I had to stop fighting everyone and everything”, “For me, prayer and meditation made me feel much better”, “ I faked it. Today, nearly five years clatter, I hang with ta bunch of winners.”, “The only faith you need is faith in the AA program.”, “There is a Higher Power. For me this is not a theory.”, “happy recovery is achieved through personal changes brought about by working the Twelve Steps.”, “I do believe in the human soul, above and apart from our psychology and morality”, “The Big Book has helped millions find comfort in their own existence. I am one of those people.” “In the Seventh Step Prayer I see that the believer simply asks to be a good person.”, “Constant vigilance against these defects keeps me on my toes.”, “if I would change my attitude my whole life would change. But if I held on to my old ideas and ways, I would very likely end up by getting drunk.”, “I have, however, had a deep and effective spiritual experience as a result of the AA Steps bringing me into contact with ‘an unspecified inner resource’ (which I call God as a matter of convenience).

Need I continue?

The Rev. Ward Ewing, AA GSO Trustee Emeritus (notorious for being included on the program of our first SecularAA International Convention in California in 2014) who is a “hero”, of sorts, for a sub-group of  SecularAA “spiritual agnostics” who sometimes refer to themselves as atheists, is, for some unaccountable reason, also included in this  book that supposedly is by and about atheist and agnostic AA members.

Toward the end of the book he opines as follows… “The spirituality of the Twelve Steps and of AA as a whole is clear and powerful.

Bullshit! What we have here, very clearly stated, is rank religiosity and the grafting on of religious concepts and principals on to a group that is clearly, and obviously, at its root, secular in nature. It is the most egregious form of co-option I have seen yet. There have been many attempts by these people, but this is right up there with the worst practices revealed by the AA GSO and their SecularAA fellow travelers thus far.

Here is the theory:

Faced with a growing secular movement within AA the “powers that be” at AA GSO and the Grapevine felt it necessary to throw some of the so-called “leaders” of our SecularAA organization a bone in the form of this ridiculous book and the ‘God Word’ pamphlet which you can read more about here.

These bones, like all that have gone before with more to surely come, are designed to trap SecularAA in the same vice the conventional AA groups find themselves in with the “acceptance” of the Oxford Group 12 Step religion and Big Book program, using associated “literature” as a de facto “mandate” for compliance with their dogma. This has nothing to do with suggestions. Its obviously an attempt to manipulate our reality to suit their narrative.

By putting some false bromides about atheism and “non-belief” on top of their obviously religious injunctions and suppositions about the day to day realities inherent in recovery they are actively recruiting a sub-set of us who will “carry the water” of GSO/Grapevine while they attempt to marginalize and, ultimately, absorb us. To that end they have solicited endorsements of this naked attempt to water down what could have been a truly secular message and to recruit prominent members of our community to promote their specious views.

This duplicitous book was specifically designed to feign “inclusivity”, but it only encompasses the most conventional views and attitudes dressed up as the above referenced “agnostic spirituality” while omitting any truly atheist positions in contrast to or in contradiction of the conventional AA program. It in no way reflects my own 30 years of experience with SecularAA and thus, for thus reviewer, mirrors, in book form, what was attempted in the ‘God Word’ pamphlet.

By framing everything within the discredited (at least for this determined atheist) context of the “Steps” and “Big Book” the editors of ‘One Big Tent’ have perpetrated nothing short of a fraud.

They claim inclusivity while explicitly rejecting it. ‘One Big Tent’ is “One Big Hoax.”

John H John Huey’s student work of the 60’s-70’s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf.
After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at

10 thoughts on “One Big Tent

  1. John Lauritsen says:

    John, My take on One Big Test wasn’t quite so negative as yours. To be sure, the constant mentions of “spirituality” were annoying, as were allusions to “the program”, which apparently means “working” the Steps. Time and again Bill W. was cited reverently as the avatar of Tolerance and Inclusiveness, whereas he could be small-minded and ignorant. In the seventies, at GSO in New York, I read letters that he’d written in response to AA members who objected to the “Lord’s Prayer”. Bill didn’t budge an inch — told them they’d better say it anyway, to give themselves a lesson in tolerance. I think the “tolerant” sayings later attributed to Bill W. were actually written by others, with better minds and command of English.
    Almost completely missing from the book was the true AA, the AA that works. The 24-Hour Plan was never mentioned by name, although one person said, “Just for today, I’ll not take that first drink.” Another said, “I didn’t have to drink, no matter what….” Another said that the Preamble kept him sober. Several people cited the Fellowship as the basis of their sobriety.
    Some of the articles were sincere and interesting, especially when they described the intolerance that they, as unbelievers, had experienced from the big Book fundamentalists.
    Face it, if you or I had submitted a letter — giving forthright criticisms of the Steps, Big Book, Bill W., or religion — the letter would have gone into the circular file. AA and the Grapevine have commodities to sell, and we don’t help their sales.

  2. Michael D says:

    Thank you John for your review and revealing observations about this book. I have attended the last two ICSAA conferences in Toronto, Canada and Austin, Texas. I came away from both events confused about what aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous do secular members of AA accept if any at all? The religious roots, concepts, and practices found in AA literature and meeting rooms are no secret. And it’s also no secret that each individual member can accept or reject any or all of these concepts and practices. You are correct when you say that nowhere in this book are the individuals who “categorically reject their so called “Steps” and any and all concepts defined, in any manner, as “spirituality.” To be honest I’ve not met many AA members that hold this view. In fact the first time I met anyone who held this view was at the ICSAA conferences. Well I’ll be damned there are sober alcoholics that stay sober and lead useful lives and don’t do it my way! I’m an atheist. God does not exist. And I categorically reject any concepts of the supernatural. I also don’t equivocate the word spirituality with supernatural forces, metaphysical phenomena, or religion. Many people do but that’s their right, their choice, and their truth.

    I came to the truth of my atheism in the rooms of conventional AA after a number of years sober. I continue to share my experience in conventional rooms of AA because, like you, I want AA to be truly inclusive and not just an expressed principle read at the beginning of a meeting. I’ve had a believer, so threatened by my irreverence, come running up to me after the meeting shaking his hand in my face, asking if I can make one of these! All I could muster was not yet, give me a few decades. It has been eighty-four years now of Alcoholics Anonymous being synonymous, rightly or wrongly, with hope and a sober way of living. No God. No steps. No spirituality. These are fighting words and an existential threat to hundreds of thousands of sober AA members who want to be included too.

    Is the goal of secular AA to have one inclusive fellowship? Or is the goal to create a separate secular AA fellowship? Both options seem to be a tall order. I appreciate your efforts. Stay determined.
    -Michael D

  3. John C says:

    John, thanks for taking the time to read this so I won’t have to. At the Toronto conference they were pushing this book as a victory for secular AA. It’s quite the opposite, as you pointed out. The dogma of the “program” and “steps” continue to be sold as the ultimate panaceas for living. Just another attempt to promote orthodoxy. We heretics ain’t having it. Nonconformists such as ourselves know that AA works because of one alcoholic helping another – not 12 sentences nor spirituality.

    • John Huey says:

      Thanks John.. We take the heat for saying what we know to be true for ourselves only. They always seem to think we are attempting to define their truth and they react accordingly. I’ll be standing with my atheist sisters and brothers till the end of course but the irrational majority will not disappear. After all, we really don’t believe in “magic” do we?

  4. Elaine Burgher says:

    There may be one big tent that includes spiritual agnostics. Nothing to do with atheism though. The atheists I know in aa are either open and honest about it and take the program in its broadest metaphorical sense and it works for them…. or spend the rest of their time attempting to change the program. For some, it is easier to wear slippers than carpet the world.

  5. norm langille says:

    Good Review John–I liked what you had to say–like you after 38 yrs I have learned what I need to do to stay sober–the knees of my pants will never have dust on them–thanks Norm

  6. Doug Elam says:

    It seems to be the fad now, not only in AA to say”I’m spiritual, not religious,”. But to every person I’ve heard use the word, it requires supernatural belief. I am a retired therapist in recovery. They are condescending and insulting to us.

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