no defects!

Have you seen this man?

Steppers without Defects of Character

by Mykeru

The other night, after a small Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where the lead’s topic was “Using Your Higher Power”, I stood outside the venue, a nondescript building in Arlington, Virginia which might have once been some sort of school, but now functioned as a Baptist church, smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the more intelligent members of this group.

These moments, I think, are my real reason for being in AA: Just to talk to people, one-on-one, without reference to The Big Book or the pointless God-boggled self-loathing and infantile babbling that characterizes “sharing” within the AA meeting itself.

In AA a “Higher Power” is, at first, a pretty amorphous entity — a door knob, a bedpan, a “Group of Drunks” — right up to the point where it transmogrifies with a sleight-of-hand jolt into the easily petitioned, micro-managing, diaper-changing, Great Go-fer God of Bill Wilson’s Buchmanite imagination.

Despite the baited hook of nebulous “Higher Powers” Wilson makes the nature of this “higher power” unequivocal by page 46 of the Big Book: “We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.”

“Which is God”. Not a doorknob “higher power”, not a God “as we understand Him”, but God.


In AA, one is supposed to hand back one’s will like a hot potato to this deity and, in return, come under Buchmannite “God Control”, doing the will of this God rather than one’s own will. In return, the AA God will perform certain useful services, such as removing one’s resentments, character defects and spiritual maladies, including (almost as an after-thought, really) the urge to drink.

As a non-believer in any deities, much less the “God of AA”, it strikes me that atheists often take the idea of God far more seriously than people who profess to believe in the thing. That seriousness is deepened by the fact that I’m an atheist who was raised a Roman Catholic. In Catholicism the concept of God is very well-defined, as is the relationship of man to God.

In Catholicism, you get free will and you can’t give it back. Sin and virtue are purely volitional then, and claims to “powerlessness” will do nothing but punch your ticket to Hell.

In over 2,000 years, from St. Paul to Aquinas and through to Anselm, the idea of what God is has been defined: God is a self-existing, uncaused being, ultimately indivisible and immutable. What’s more, God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omni-benevolent (all-good), a necessary being on which existence itself is dependent and a personal God that does intervene in human affairs, but not to be confused with the AA God who will, apparently, take out your trash and walk the dog for you.

Even as a child, taking religious instruction, the very idea of prayer confused me.

Petitioning a fallible, limited deity, like the Olympian Gods of ancient Greece makes sense as they fought, forgot and didn’t always know what was going on. It makes no sense at all to petition an all-knowing, all powerful, all good God.

If there is nothing God doesn’t know, nothing He can’t do and everything is in accordance with his benevolent plan, then why would one need to hit one’s knees and send this God a memo that he overlooked something? He would already know what you desired and the state of the world, and the state of one’s life, would be the answer.

At best prayer is worthless, at worst, it’s a futile attempt to subvert the Divine Will.

The God of AA makes even less sense. The entire purpose of this strange, off-market “higher power” God, and the bargain struck with the stepper to do this God’s will, hinges on the removal of “character defects”.

The conventional concept of the theistic God is untestable, because not only can one can never know what God’s will is, but presuming that one does is like Fandango for those aforementioned tickets to Hell.

It may well be God’s will that an alcoholic drink themselves to death. Considering the recent earthquake in Haiti in which over 300,000 men, women and innocent children died, it’s questionable whether rescuing a bunch of drunks from themselves would be this God’s number-one priority.

The God of Bill Wilson is not only testable, but pretty much begs to be tested.

Even though Wilson claims it is impossible to fully comprehend his God, he also claims, unequivocally, with that bombastic certainty and lack of intellectual rigor that characterizes the Big Book of AA, that “we commenced to get results”.

Yeah, did you now?

The only “results” this God promises is the removal of character defects, abstinence being something of a side-effect of this process, as claimed in Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”.

At the moment I was standing outside this AA meeting, it occurred to me: Where are the 12 Steppers who have had “all these defects of character” removed?

In Scientology there’s a state one can attain, after laying out lots of time, money and brain cells, called “Clear”. In this state the person is purged of “body thetans” and has reached a high level of cognitive function and self-actualization.

Or so they say.

Every time Scientology has produced a “clear” it’s been a public relations disaster. Scientology clears have embarrassed themselves at the podium the moment they have been revealed. Clears have committed suicide shortly after crossing the threshold of this supposed superhuman cognitive state.

Apparently it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Of the first ten Scientology “clears”, all are either dead, or left Scientology, with the exception of one remaining in that program.

Scientology learned the hard way that although it’s one thing to propose to the newbie pigeons that a person can achieve a transcendent state, actually producing such people is invariably an utter train-wreck.

Alcoholics Anonymous, it seems, has too much raw, used car salesman cunning to make that same mistake.

The mantra in AA is that The Steps have saved millions upon millions of people over the 70 year history of the organization. That would be in Alcoholics Anonymous alone, not counting the dozens and dozens of step groups which treat everything from sex addiction to cat hoarding.

The promise of The Steps is not that people who really work the program will have some of their “defects of character” removed. The 12 Steps promises that the God of The Steps will remove all of them.

Again, Step 6: “to have God remove all these defects of character”.

That’s the entire point of step work, and a necessary prerequisite for these people to do the will of the God of Bill Wilson’s understanding.

In all the years people have been working the 12 Steps of AA and its numerous offshoots, if The Steps work and people have really been working The Steps, there must be some people walking the earth who have had all their defects of character removed.

I want to see these defect-less people.

Just one.

If there aren’t, it either means The Steps don’t work, God says “no” all the time, or no one is working, or can really work The Steps.

Just where are these AA moral and spiritual supermen?

One can already hear the ready-made, thought-stopping aphorisms coming from 12 Steppers: “None of us are saints”. “None of us can claim perfect adherence”. “We claim spiritual progress, no spiritual perfection”.

The biggest out, of course, is that Step 6 only states that one be “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” and then in Step 7 one humbly asks God to remove these shortcomings.

Nowhere does it say He actually does it.

Which is like going to a restaurant, sitting down, having the waiter tell you the specials, take your order and then retreat to the kitchen never to be seen again. Hell, he didn’t say he’d actually bring you a meal.

Although it’s sort of strongly implied.

Which means that if one really tries, really works the 12 Steps with “rigorous honesty”, then the God of AA will remove one’s defects of character.

Except when he doesn’t.

The founders of AA, those who devised The Steps (borrowing freely from Dale Carnegie and Frank Buchman) were chock full of character defects. Bill Wilson in particular was the original “13th Stepper”, adulterously preying on young, vulnerable women coming into “The Program” with little regard for the effect this could have on their tenuous sobriety.

You’d think God would remove that glaring defect first, even before the urge to drink.

So even if there are “defect-less” people walking around,  or even people with less obvious defects, then why wasn’t Bill Wilson one of them?