“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Tom P.
AA saved my life and set me on an exciting journey of personal growth and transformation. I am very grateful.
Yet, with regard to religion, it feels to me that AA recreates some of the trauma I endured growing up in a dysfunctional home, and in a well-known religious sect. In my childhood home, I rarely spoke my mind, preferring to stay quiet rather than getting myself yelled at or smacked. Less intense reactions by my parents were still hurtful; I was ignored, dismissed, told directly or indirectly that I was imagining things, that I was spoiled, that I was too young to know anything, that I was to be “seen and not heard.” At church, the standard dogma was taught, and it was taken as a given that I would be obedient and affirm it. As I started to think for myself, I shared some thoughts with my peers; they looked at me like I was a monster. I can vividly recall the look of revulsion in their eyes. I quickly learned that others’ religious views held a privileged position in our society, and I decided to keep my mouth shut.
In AA, we are frequently told that the program is “spiritual” but not “religious.” Now, I know that this statement is false, but I am repeatedly told that it is true. Just as my parents did not want to hear that there was a serious problem in our home, most members of AA do not want to hear or acknowledge that the program is religious. If I hint at my true thoughts on this subject in a meeting, the group brings pressure to bear on me with thinly veiled crosstalk, or by members approaching me after meetings hoping to guide me back to AA orthodoxy. Most of the other members’ comments are well-meaning, but simplistic. Other times the comments are completely ludicrous. Recently, I was told that my Higher Power could be anything, it could even be a doorknob. The Doorknob Deity! Seriously? This idea is almost as bizarre as the dogma I was taught in Sunday school as a child. As I drove home from that meeting, I decided it was time to put pen to paper.
AA is spiritual and religious. It is both. I will present a brief rationale to support this statement, followed by some comments and a suggestion.
“Spirituality” is a vague term, but generally refers to personal growth / transformation, and finding meaning in life. I think we all can all agree that AA is a spiritual program. The definition of a religion is more specific: an organized collection of beliefs that relate humanity to the overall order of existence, along with any associated rituals, traditions, history and literature. AA clearly fits this definition. In literature and practice, AA advocates specific, organized beliefs about our relationship with God or a Higher Power, practices rituals based on this collection of beliefs, and advocates specific, related, private actions based on these beliefs. While AA’s unique organizational structure is both brilliant and beautiful, the G.S.O. does decide on all conference approved literature, and thus controls what messages and beliefs are promoted and re-enforced, and what messages are excluded.
The following is a brief outline of AA’s religious creed. For shorthand, I will use the word “God” to include the monotheistic concept of an omniscient and omnipotent, interventionist, personal God, as well as all concepts of a Higher Power. I will also make use of the traditional masculine pronoun for God, and will capitalize the word God and His associated pronouns, strictly for the purpose of readability.
- God exists.
- God can be described as possessing certain qualities.
- In some sense, God is greater than any of us on our own.
- God favors sobriety and personal growth over addiction, selfishness and self-destruction. He is not neutral in these matters.
- God has an individual “will” for each one of us, meaning He has a specific, desired path He would like each one of us to follow.
- God reveals His will for us at some point, but only if He is sought.
- God has the capacity to take pre-meditated action that affects us directly, and sometimes does so by influencing our private thoughts or inclinations, or by manipulating the events in our day-to-day lives, or both. God can and will remove our alcoholism, if he is sought (How it Works).
- The transcendent or eventual spiritual goal of AA is for us to seek and approach, as perfectly as possible, the knowledge of God’s will for us, so that our own will either disappears, merges with His, or we have the wish, intent and power to subordinate our will to His (Step 11).
While I understand that this sketch can be debated, the point here is that it unequivocally represents an organized collection of beliefs that relate humanity (alcoholic humanity at least) to the overall order of existence. If there are arguments against this view, I am curiously looking forward to hearing them. One might say that AA is a spiritual program with some roots in religion, or that AA is a non-denominational, mono-theistically informed spiritual program. Yet, to say AA is not religious is simply false. When I am told that AA is spiritual but not religious I feel like I am being asked to deny what I see and hear with my own eyes and ears. Religions often compel people to accept fantastic statements on faith alone, even when the statement does not hold up under scrutiny. In fact, having “faith” in something that goes counter to evidence is frequently portrayed as a virtue. AA is joining other churches when it repeats to the point of absurdity the demonstrably false statement that it is not religious, and expects us to believe it and repeat it. The issue stirs up the powerful, negative emotions I had as a child when I was expected to accept and believe the orthodox dogma of the church simply because I was told to, or was told by my parents that black was white and white was black.
So why does AA insist on making the “not religious” claim? I will say a few words about this question, understanding that there is a lot more that can be said.
First off, quite simply, most people do not realize or fully realize how deeply embedded the mono-theistic, interventionist view of God is in our consciousness as Americans, especially the Christian view of God. Many ideas, feelings and outlooks that seem perfectly natural to some people are easily traced back to a religious origin. For example, consider the idea that we are all stained with the original sin of Adam and Eve, and are lost (or damned) until we accept a savior and turn our life and will over to Him. This doctrine is easy to see within the 12 Steps, and in the sketch of AA’s religious creed, outlined above. In my experience, theists are often puzzled and confused why non-theists like me object to or are put-off by statements that seem so natural to them, things that are often said with nothing but compassion, concern and caring.
The reason most often given for AA’s “not religious” claim is that it represents an attempt to reach out to non-theists, and make them feel welcome. Yet, if this is the reason, I can say with authority as a non-theist that it is not advancing the cause. A claim that is clearly false will not attract atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, who are generally driven away by religions that make statements that are not true, contradictory, puzzling, or show an obvious lack of self-awareness. In 2013 the G.S.O. declined to publish a pamphlet written to reach out to atheists and agnostics still suffering from alcoholism, titled “AA – Spiritual Not Religious.” I support reaching out to our non-theist brothers and sisters, but it was probably best that this particular pamphlet was rejected. Before I hit bottom, I would have thought “Non-religious? Yeah, right.” and thrown it in the trash. The proposed title of the pamphlet would have proclaimed to me that it was not credible, and not worth reading.
A less flattering reason why AA might make the “not religious” claim would be that it is an attempt to sound like it welcomes non-theists, while it simultaneously pushes them away. I admit, as a non-theist, I am used to feeling unwelcome, and may see the “Godless Atheists: STAY OUT” message at times when it is not intended. But also consider that AA has published pamphlets reaching out to the Armed Services, Native Americans, alcoholics with special needs, women, senior citizens, gay and lesbian alcoholics, health professionals, and convicted prisoners, but has yet to publish a pamphlet reaching out to non-theists.
I hope that AA can do a “searching and fearless” self-assessment regarding this issue, can be “rigorously honest” with itself, and go beyond “half-measures” in welcoming non-theists and some non-theist influence into the fellowship. I do not know exactly what that might look like, though a simple first step would be to discourage the use of the “not religious” mantra.
It was easy for me to leave the church of my youth, as it did not have a single positive effect on me. (The church opportunistically and wrongly takes credit for humanity’s morality. We are good people in spite of religion, not because of it.) AA, however, saved my life, and the fellowship and wisdom is helping me become a better person and live a more contented life. I plan to stay an active member, and hope my contribution can help us to reach out our hand to those that feel put-off by, or even personally harmed by theism.
Tom P. is a physician who spent twenty years working with addictions, when alcoholism unexpectedly descended on him like an invading army. He is now a grateful member of AA, and two other 12 Step fellowships. His beautiful, devoted wife has found deep meaning, understanding and guidance in Al-Anon.
Dr. Tom sees no evidence that the universe cares whether the Earth or us homo sapiens are here or not, but he also thinks that AA demonstrates the great good humanity can do when we hold hands, unite and take some responsibility for one another.