Is AA a religion?

a staircase made of clouds disappearing into the dazzling light of heaven

August 15, 2022

By Andy F

Categories: Alcoholics Anonymous

The “God” word pamphlet

In May 2017, the ‘General Service Conference’ of Alcoholics Anonymous approved and published a pamphlet that was called The “God” word. It was a significant event for all atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers who came to AA to get sober. As mentioned in a previous blog, an AA group in London inspired and initiated this pamphlet. It is known as the Thursday Islington Atheist, Agnostic, and Freethinkers group. This blog will not be about the creation and publication of the booklet. Instead, it will focus on the very first line of this all-important piece of AA literature.

The first sentence states: “AA is not a religious organization.” Can we take this statement at face value? Since its inception, there has been controversy on this issue both in and out of the fellowship. Undoubtedly, AA approaches recovery from alcoholism using a model requiring a spiritual orientation.

“Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a ubiquitous recovery mutual-help organization that continues to arouse controversy, in part because of the program’s spiritual orientation.”

John F Kennedy

MGH Department of Psychiatry, MGH-Harvard Medical School Recovery Research Institute, Boston, MA

The primary recovery text of AA is affectionately known as The Big Book. A cursory glance will reveal that the efficacy of its recovery approach is spiritual. The twelve steps are a mechanism for rehabilitation from alcohol addiction. Five of the twelve steps mention ‘God’ and the sixth a ‘power greater than ourselves.’ Does this fact qualify AA as a religion? It’s an interesting question and one that begs a reasonable answer.

What is religion?

What is religion anyway? I became very interested in answering this question for myself. I looked up the word “religion” in the dictionary.

Religion: “Belief in a spiritual or metaphysical reality (often including at least one deity), accompanied by practices or rituals pertaining to the belief.” Wiktionary

Religion is usually defined as a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices that generally relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements; however, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.” – Wikipedia.

Two things struck me as significant in the explanations offered.

The first definition

Wiktionary suggests that to come close to resembling a religion, more often than not, a religion often incorporates “one deity” as part of its central belief system.

The fact is that AA’s twelve steps reject the idea of one deity. Steps three and eleven include the added phrase “as we understand him.”  This powerful statement suggests that AA does not embrace the concept of one central divine being that all its members share.

Step two uses the expression “power greater than ourselves.” which could mean any power, seen or unseen, that can help the alcoholic stop drinking.

Step two – “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

As an organization, it has always made it clear that your conception of a higher power is the only one that is valid. If your higher power happens to be a door knob and it’s keeping you sober, as far as AA is concerned, that’s all that matters.

“He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him.”

(BB p.93)

Another interpretation  

Wikipedia states there is “no scholarly consensus over what constitutes a religion.” This statement seems to suggest that there is no formal definition of religion. If that is true, then it may imply a fascinating truth. Perhaps the meaning of the noun ‘religion’ is subjective. It may mean different things to different people.

Being subjective, it depends on each person’s personal experience of the phenomenon of religion. As an institution, religion may have a negative meaning for some, while the experience of others may be optimistic. Its true meaning is nebulous. It is open to whatever interpretation each person may ascribe to it. There is no clear-cut definition of what constitutes a religion.

The A.A. preamble is read out loud at the beginning of every meeting. A vital sentence always reminds its members: 

“A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution.”

If not a religion, is AA a quasi-religion?

Quasi-religion – “Almost, or as if, religious” (Wiktionary)

Quasi-religion – “Quasi-religions are non-religious movements which have unintended similarities to religions.” (Wikipedia)

A good friend in AA, a retired university academic and, like me, an agnostic, recently sent me this:

“I found ‘quasi-religious’ defined as something resembling a religion and ‘an organization incorporating religious or spiritual elements into their belief systems.

The word ‘belief’ is essential here: the Big Book emphasizes belief (and faith) in a higher power, whatever your conception of a greater power may be. Does AA, then, come into the category of being quasi-religious?” Yes, it would certainly seem so.

As an agnostic in AA, that’s good enough for me! The bottom line is that an agnostic interpretation of the twelve steps has transformed my life. They have kept me happily sober for the last 24 years. I merely replaced the word “God” with AA itself. The power of the program and the suggestions of an agnostic-friendly sponsor have been the higher powers that have helped me to recover.

Is AA fundamentalism like religious fundamentalism?

I have experienced both AA fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism. There was a time in the fellowship when I kept relapsing. In those days, I was full of fear and very lost. I joined some very fundamentalist cult-like AA groups. From my perspective, I found striking similarities between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist AA.

The “Vision for you” groups

In these groups, God was constantly mentioned and seen as the center of their therapeutic efficacy. Moreover, AA groups that had a fundamentalist approach to recovery usually had one charismatic leader, not unlike a charismatic priest or pastor in the church. In these groups, just like the Bible, the Big Book of AA is believed to be divinely inspired.

The “Vision for you” groups are literal and rigid in interpreting the Big Book. They are humorously known as “Big Book Thumpers.” Groups in AA that turn into a sect-like religion have become a worldwide phenomenon. They represent a tiny section of the fellowship as a whole.

“All fundamentalism is born out of fear” – Lord Soper

At that time in my life, for two years, I needed the structure and discipline of AA fundamentalism. These groups did give my chaotic, unmanageable life some direction. They pointed me toward sobriety. In that sense, I cannot deny that, at the time, I needed to turn these groups into something resembling the formal structure of a religion.

So this still leaves us with the all-important question. Is AA a religion, and is this the right question to ask? I realized that behind it lay a much more important one. Do some alcoholics, at different times in their recovery, need AA to be a religion? If so, being a pure democracy, members have the freedom to turn AA into anything they need it to be.

Spiritual, not religious

Initially, I saw A.A. as a program of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. As I slowly began to recover, I realized something vital. To get well and stay well, I had to embrace two principles central to A.A. philosophy: love and service to others.

Dr Bob Smith was the co-founder of A.A. with Bill Wilson. The convention committee asked Dr. Bob to speak at the First International A.A. Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 30, 1950. Dr Bob passed away three and a half months later. His talk became very well known as ‘Dr. Bob’s farewell talk,’ He declares that the two core principles of A.A. are love and service. He reminds all those in attendance to keep the program simple. This practice has transformed my life so much that I accept it as spiritual.

These days, I am very clear about what A.A. is and how it works. Quite simply, it is a spiritual, not religious, program. For this agnostic alcoholic, I have learned that spirituality and religion are not even remotely similar. With this in mind, I try to practice the principles that Dr. Bob reminded us of to the best of my ability. As a result of working through the twelve steps, I have become a satisfied customer of Alcoholics Anonymous!

In fellowship,

Andy F

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