Has Alcoholics Anonymous Declared Itself a Religion?

Religious Meetings

By Vic Losick
Originally published on June 29, 2017 on InRecovery
© Vic Losick MMXVII All Rights Reserved

Larry K., an AA member of many years was frustrated at what he considered to be the increasing religiosity of AA meetings in the Toronto area. So in 2009, he started two secular AA meetings. However in 2011, Toronto Intergroup removed both secular groups from its website and phone listings claiming that a belief in God was necessary for membership. As Larry K. noted, “…we lost our membership and our voice and our vote… We weren’t allowed to speak in our own defense or make appeals or anything.”

After receiving no meaningful responses to his written requests for explanations, Larry K. took his complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal, charging discrimination. One of the few ways that Toronto Intergroup could avoid the stigma of bias was to declare itself a religion, which indeed it did do. As part of a strategy to defend itself the Toronto Intergroup stated, “… it is a bona fide requirement that groups that wish to be part of this intergroup must have a belief in the higher power of God.”

Because this debate is so highly charged, repercussions may be felt across the world of recovery. The recent explosion of opioid addiction has added millions who might well benefit from such programs.

According to AA literature,“…any group of alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group provided that, as a group, they have no other purpose or affiliation.” And each AA group may, “…conduct its internal affairs as it wishes—it being merely requested to abstain from acts that might injure AA as a whole…”

In brief, this is how AA is organized: AA’s parent body is A.A. World Services, Inc. (A.A.W.S.), and its articles of incorporation specifically distinguish and distance it from local AA groups. The groups themselves are separate and autonomous entities, although A.A.W.S. holds the copyrights to all AA publications for AA groups around the world.

Critical to this arrangement are “intergroups,” which might be likened to local co-ops. Intergroups are established by individual groups, usually in cities, to coordinate services. Primarily they maintain a roster of meetings, with times, days and locations, and often operate a telephone hot-line for alcoholics. It should be noted that A.A.W.S. also maintains that, “it has no connection or control over any Intergroup.” – a claim questioned by some.

So it was the Toronto Intergroup that took it upon itself without consulting A.A.W.S. to delist the two secular groups in the Toronto area and invoke religion as its reasoning.

Whether a group is or is not listed by an Intergroup might seem unimportant, perhaps even trivial. However, for those who think that they might have a drinking problem, or for AA members from out of town, or even for active local AA members merely seeking a new or different meeting, the most common method for locating a meeting is either online or over the phone. To be excluded from this essential public information denies most people the broader choices that might help them get sober. (Full disclosure: I am a long-time member of AA, and a recently retired board member of the International Convention of Secular Alcoholics Anonymous. However, I speak here only for myself).

My personal experience strongly suggests that attendees of secular AA meetings are not whiners, nor do they want to “convert” anyone to atheism. And of course, if you are non-believer (or “other” believer”) and you really want to get sober, you can probably endure a modicum of religiosity. But after a few years the constant testimony from others that sobriety is “a gift of God” begins to wear on you. It’s not unlike having to sing, pray, and listen to sermons before being able to receive a meal at the Salvation Army.

(Just to be clear: I use the term “non-believer” in its broadest, most all-inclusive sense, which embraces agnostics, atheists, free thinkers, brights, skeptics, non-theists, naturalists, materialists, humanists, rationalists, secularists, et al).

The nature of addiction – be it to alcohol, opioids, cocaine, or marijuana – is such that it deludes the abuser into thinking that there is no problem even though evidence to the contrary abounds. Therefore even the slightest reason not to begin a life in recovery can derail an alcoholic. We’ll never know how many people who might otherwise have been helped by AA (or any other recovery program) have walked into a meeting only to be put off when they see “God” all over the suggested 12 Steps, and hear “No sobriety without God,” and who then turn around and walk out, never to return.

Those newcomers who stay and demonstrate even the slightest degree of religious skepticism are told to think of “God” as “Good Orderly Direction,” or “Group Of Drunks,” or even the proverbial “door knob.” For the newbie the inference is not to get hung up on the religious stuff; but to just let it wash over you. In the end, after you get some sobriety under your belt you will “come to believe” just as we “old timers” in AA have done.

There is a popular, rather laissez-faire expression in AA, “Take what you want and leave the rest.” However, for the true believers, the questioning of AA without God, is the “third rail” of the recovery movement. And there are definite legal repercussions as well. Although AA is not a religion in the commonly accepted sense of the word, the US Supreme Court has ruled that it is religious to the extent that forcing people to attend AA meetings could violate their constitutional rights.

In one case, Barry Hazle of Shasta County, California, was paroled from prison after serving part of his sentence for meth possession. As a condition of his parole, Hazle was mandated to attend a drug treatment program, a program requiring his belief in a “higher power.” A life-long atheist, Hazle resisted and was sent back to prison to complete his sentence. He sued the State of California, and several years later was awarded $1,950,000. Had the judge had the option to send Mr. Hazle to secular meetings, this costly outcome might have been avoided.

In several other cases, courts have similarly ruled, although AA never maintained that “…a belief in the higher power of God” is necessary for membership. In fact, the AA Preamble” states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

Allow me to describe a typical, conventional AA meeting: The overwhelming majority of meetings are held in church basements (“They save your soul upstairs. We save your ass down here.”) The suggested 12 Steps & 12 Traditions (Link to the 12 and 12) along with other AA slogans are hung on the walls.

The opening remarks usually contain the AA Preamble, and the reading of some excerpts from AA conference-approved literature, which can get fairly religious. The most common selection is “How it Works,” which contains the 12 Steps, and ends with “…Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power — that One is God. May you find Him now!”

A featured speaker (just another AA member) then shares his or her “experience, strength and, hope” for about 15 to 20 minutes, followed by a secretary’s break (passing the hat, and announcements), followed by other attendees “sharing” from the floor (in which belief and thanks to a Higher Power are often heard), and then the meeting’s closing remarks are read which again can get fairly pious. Finally, all rise, hold hands and recite “The Lord’s Prayer” (or less frequently, “The Serenity Prayer”).

Secular AA meetings do not differ much: most notably, the 12 Steps are not on display; and the opening statements usually just include the AA Preamble and sometimes the addition of a “Secular AA Preamble.” Most importantly, there is no mention of God or Higher Power. The secretary’s break still includes passing the hat and making announcements, followed by “sharing” from the floor. Anyone can share anything, including their particular beliefs, non-beliefs, or no religious preferences at all.

The closing remarks again make no mention of God or Higher Power, but usually refer to a long-standing AA dictum, “Whenever anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.” After which all rise, hold hands and recite an AA slogan, “Live and Let Live.” There is no prayer.

When it started in the 1930’s, the decade after Prohibition, Alcoholics Anonymous, was greatly influenced by the Oxford Group, a then recently moribund, intensely Christian movement; hence AA’s close relationship with Christianity. So it’s not surprising that most of AA’s original members were primarily white, male Christians, and in many respects Christianity remains AA’s default posture today.

The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, written mostly in the late 1930’s by one of AA’s co-founders, Bill W., is always referred to as the “Big Book.” It maintains an outdated view of society written in ponderous prose. As with many other institutions, AA has its share of “originalists” – those who insist on a rather rigid interpretation of the Big Book and AA. Some of these fundamentalists go on to refer to a “bigger book,” by which they mean the Bible. In certain parts of the country members have been known to rise, state their name, and recite, “I’m an alcoholic and a sinner.” In fact, some of these uber believers maintain that the real goal in AA is not to achieve sobriety necessarily, but instead to form a deeper bond and belief in God.

Many of Bill W’s writings are revered as if they were the “Federalist Papers“ of AA. Here is part of his letter of May 4, 1957: “To begin with, the Steps are not enforceable upon anyone—they are only suggestions. A belief in the Steps or in God is not in any way requisite for A.A. membership. Therefore, we have no means of compelling anyone to stay away from A.A. because he does not believe in God or the Twelve Steps. In fact, A.A. has a technique of reducing rebellion among doubting people by deliberately inviting them to disagree with everything we believe in.”

Despite writings like this, some AA members – including fragile newcomers – are still told that they will drink without a belief in God. In 1956, the American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease – a medical model also embraced by AA. That would make alcoholism the sole disease that can only be “cured” (or arrested) by a belief in a Higher Power.

The range of believers in AA reflects the US population at large. This spectrum varies from the very devout to those who don’t give faith too much thought. So you might ask, “Why the anger?” Ironically, it is usually the most pious both in and out of AA who feel the most threatened by non-believers. For those believers in AA who are convinced that sobriety is only possible with a belief in a Higher Power, non-believers in AA pose a threat to their sobriety as well.

So is AA (at least in Toronto) a religion? As with many corporate agreements, the party accused of wrongdoing usually “settles,” which means that the corporation pays a fine, but never admits to any “wrongdoing.” Such was the case in February. (Link to Toronto Minutes). After mediation, Toronto Intergroup backtracked and claimed it wasn’t a religion after all, and stated “The Respondent does not admit liability….” The two secular meetings “…can be listed in the GTA Intergroup…regardless of the specific beliefs or practices of the group members or the group as a whole…”

One would think that the exclusion of non-believers was an outlier position since many secular AA groups are listed by their local Intergroups. And we might even take heart since the Vancouver, B.C. and Vancouver, WA Intergroups, perhaps prodded by the Toronto agreement, have changed their policies and have now decided to list all groups including those self-described as secular. However, cities such as Denver and Fresno still refuse to include their secular brethren. (And it should be noted that even in “pagan” New York City secular AA groups were forced to scrub any altered versions of the 12 Steps so as not to offend those who wanted to delist them as well).

Secular AA is not anti-religious, but rather non-religious, and this is not a new phenomenon. The first secular AA groups were founded in Chicago, and have been in existence for over 35 years. Today there are over 300 groups worldwide, having doubled in number in the last two years. (Link to www.SecularAA.org)

But we are not talking about a secular take-over of conventional AA. Secular AA is still but a small fraction of the total AA membership (over 2,000,000 at last count). Nor does secular AA want to convert anyone to anything. Rather, it just wants conventional AA to be inclusive instead of exclusive. Secular AA does not question the deeply held convictions of believers, but insists on mutual respect given to all AA members. There are attendees at secular meetings who are believers but who prefer to keep religion and sobriety separate, talking about God in church, and talking about sobriety in AA meetings. It’s hard to describe the liberation one feels when there is no official religious talk at AA meetings. And it’s hard to go back.

Coincident with the explosion of opioid addiction Americans now seem to realize that the best way to deal with substance abuse of all types is with treatment rather than punishment. If conventional AA wants to be an active participant in the 21st century it would do well to shed it’s 1930’s Christian-centric ideology, and make a sincere effort at pluralism. Discrimination against non-believers is one of the last remaining forms of socially acceptable bigotry.

Non-religious members of AA do not want to “take God out of AA.” Rather, they want to add meetings where the insistence on a belief in God is not a requirement for sobriety. They do not want to have to accept any one else’s beliefs, nor have to deny their own.


Vic L., a documentary film producer in New York City, has been sober since February 11, 1979.

 He is the author of several articles about secular AA and religion:

Vic played a role in both the Santa Monica and Austin secular AA conventions. In Santa Monica he moderated a panel called “Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA?” He became a member of the Board of the Austin Convention in January 2016 and moderated two panels, “What is WAAFT?” and “The Future of WAAFT”.

Also Vic was the founder of two AA meetings in New York City, Columbus at 5 (a conventional AA meeting started in 1990) and Without a Prayer (a secular meeting launched on January 17, 2015).

We thank Vic for his service and today’s very thoughtful and comprehensive article.


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Has Alcoholics Anonymous Declared Itself a Religion? — 29 Comments

  1. I’m an atheist and a member of the AA fellowship for 50+ years. I’ve been listening all these years to the ignorance regarding recovery from many in the AA fellowship. For me, what ends all argument is what Bill Wilson wrote in “As Bill Sees It”, page 95, Spiritual Kindergarten, third paragraph… “We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect. Each man’s theology has to be his own quest, his own affair.”

    “When the Big Book was being planned, some members thought that it ought to be Christian in the doctrinal sense. Others had no objection to the use of the word ‘God’, but wanted to avoid doctrinal issues. Spirituality, yes. Religion, no. Still others wanted a psychological book, to lure the alcoholic in. Once in, he could take God or leave Him alone as he wished. To the rest of us this was shocking, but happily we listened. Our group conscience was at work to construct the most acceptable and effective book possible. Every voice was playing its appointed part. ‘Our atheists and agnostics widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief’.” (Letter, 1954. AA Comes of Age, pp. 162, 163, 167)

    • Each man’s theology. Theism. One god. Quest for it. Still missing the boat. Monotheism Bill thought universal.

      • As I posted, third paragraph ends all argument… It reads…

        Our atheists and agnostics widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.

        Bill Wilson was agnostic!

      • Jim Burwell and others wanted the Christianity toned down. What they got was: God of your understanding, call it a higher power (just one). Humbly ask him on your knees was taken out. So then it was said atheists widened the doors to AA. But really just a couple of inches since you still ask this hp for things, pray to it and turn your will over to it. Also it is still monotheism. Very arrogant to think these small changes threw the door wide open to AA. Ends all argument? Yes atheists widened the doors but really not much!

  2. I have been listening to an AA CD recording of one of the first women in AA (not Marty Mann).

    The recording (1965) opens with an invocation to “JESUS”… not my medicine !!!

    She talks about leaving the farm & going to the city. Times were different then.

    Of course AA is religious, always was and forever will be unless the steps are rewritten in a secular manner.

    In October I’ll be sober anyway, 47 years.

  3. Clarification and credit is due here. Joe C (and a few others) started the first agnostic AA meeting in Canada, called Beyond Belief, that met at OISE (University of Toronto), NOT Larry K as stated in this article. As this became such an important issue worldwide, I really do think that a retraction and clarification ought to be made here, and credit and kudos given to the correct person, Joe C.

    • Indeed. Joe C, the author of Beyond Belief, and a few other other people, started the Beyond Belief meeting on September 24, 2009. Larry became an early and regular attendee and was inspired to launch a second meeting, We Agnostics, on September 7, 2010.

    • It has come to my attention that there is a factual error in my article, “Has Alcoholics Anonymous Declared Itself a Religion?” I stand corrected and offer my apologies to Joe C. and the others who were the original founders of Beyond Belief in Toronto, not Larry K. who became a member later on. Assuming anything is bad reporting. That I assumed Larry was a founder because he took the issue to the Ontario Human Tights Tribunal is such an example.

      I should also point out that VICE website also owes Joe C., et al a similar apology. On October 24, 2016, Ryan Moore wrote on the website, “A few weeks later, Larry and a few others started the first secular AA meeting known as “Beyond Belief.”

      Misery loves company.

      • I really don’t understand “has AA declared itself a religion”. It has always been a religion as it has dogma and conversion to monotheism. Also one is not allowed to point out anything wrong or to think outside of the box (just like a religion). Several states also have had to pay millions to individuals that were court ordered to attend a religious orgainization (AA). The State Supreme courts found that AA is a religion and sending people to AA is a violation of separation of Church and State. Denial is everyone sees it except it’s members. It is a Christian denomination and founded on that religion! From one tired of compromising to Christians.

  4. Thanks again, Vic, for this excellent, well-reasoned and articulated article. I am so glad that Roger posted it here.

    I also got sober in New York City AA in the early 1970s. There was relatively little religiosity in the meetings I attended in Manhattan, primarily on the Westside and in Greenwich Village. I recall few meetings where “How It Works” was read and don’t recall the Lord’s Prayer being often chanted together, certainly not in a circle while holding hands.

    I’ve been known to opine that AA in it’s first 40 years of existence was more open and inclusive for anyone who met the only requirement for membership, the desire to stop drinking, than it has since devolved to become during the last 30-35 years with the rise of so-called “Back to the Basics” cult-like meetings based on a Christian-only interpretation of the 12-steps or the rigidity and groupthink of the Pacific and Atlantic groups. In a sense, AA today mirrors the tilt to the conservative right in the American society at large, resulting in Trump’s capture of the presidency, considerably influenced by the Christian Evangelical Right.

    I remain exceedingly grateful that we in the Secular AA movement are working to assure AA stays true to its actual history, traditions and concepts of service so that anyone, anywhere who reaches out their hand to AA can recover.

    Thanks again for this article and for your longtime service in AA.

    • I attended Greenwich Village meetings in the 60’s. More About Alcoholism, Pages 30 up to ad infinitum page 43 was read. A portion of Chapter 5, Pages 59 & 60 wasn’t read. Of the three pertinent ideas, (b) That PROBABLY no human power could have relieved our alcoholism, if the founders hadn’t written PROBABLY, I wouldn’t have continued to attend AA meetings.

      Chapter 5, How It Works (for me) is a misnomer, how it works is in Chapters 6 & 7.

      I moved to the Greater Los Angeles area, Malibu, and attended meetings in Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice, West Los Angeles; these meetings had no hierarchy or dogma. Some of these meetings didn’t recognize GSO, NYC or the publishing company AAWS, Inc., NYC. These meetings are / were autonomous and some didn’t read the so-called AA literature. Each meeting being autonomous can have any format they choose, whether it’s faith based or not.

      Besides, AA meetings are not the suggested program of recovery, the 12 Steps is. I’m an atheist that recovered through self examination.

      The bottom line of my sharing, since many large metro areas have numerous AA meetings, greater Los Angeles has 100’s, I attended meetings that didn’t subtly or overtly abuse agnostics or non-theists. I don’t need to attend faith based meetings that single out or shun non-believers, so that I can fix / argue their belief system. I have compassion for those that abuse others, including the evangelical types, for I know that those that abuse others have been abused, that’s how they leaned their behavior.

  5. Alcohol was my higher power, I had turned my will and life over to it. By taking charge of my life I have been sober for 29 years. A god or gods didn’t have anything to do with it.

  6. Some groups may qualify as a religion. A couple of local groups became dogmatic and controlling. Those groups eventually failed. Good riddance. More moderate meetings became offensive also, so I left. I have 34 years without a drink, the last 24 of those without a formal meeting. It took a while to recover from AA’s godly recovery. I know that I don’t want to re-enter that sick dynamic.

  7. Excellent article, Vic.

    As for the religiosity of AA, four – count ’em – four state supreme courts have declared that AA is “religious in nature” or “is a religious organization.” None have used the noun, ie. “AA is a religion.” However, they needn’t do so. All four listed the specific items in the literature and the history and the actions of AA in declaring it to be religious.

    Put another way, no circuit court in the U.S., when faced with this question, has determined that AA is not a religion.

    AA need not declare itself to be a religion to, in fact, be a religion. It meets the OED definition of a religion and comes perilously close to meeting the definition of a cult.

    If AA looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck; what you got there is probably a duck.

  8. I am a sober member of AA and, in about a month, I will celebrate 35 years of continuous sobriety. I am also an agnostic. As I understand it, the primary purpose of AA is to provide a way to sober up alcoholics who want to stop drinking. The system worked for me because, when it comes to the “God stuff”, I just tune it out and go along with the mumbo jumbo. There is not point in arguing the subject. If you don’t want to believe in a God – don’t. Just don’t take a drink over it.

  9. The only higher power I know and use is in a mathematical context, i.e., algebra 1 where we learned how to factor higher powers. 🙂 Makes life easier!

    • Why a higher power you pray to and turn your will over to? Why just one? Why a higher power focus? These are not universal philosophies.

  10. AA is a religion! A Christian denomination. Several State Supreme courts decided it is a religion when confronted with courts sending people to AA (seperation between church and state). AA was founded on Christianity and it is all through the steps and literature. AA has always had a dual goal and the most important is conversion to monotheism not recovery.

  11. Thanks Vic for a fabulous article! I have been sober for 40 years and only found a secular AA meeting (the one Roger C started) 1 and 1/2 years ago. You are right – I couldn’t go back. It is a breath of fresh air!!

  12. Thanks for the history lesson Vic. Though for the last two years I have been aware of the current events that will eventually be part of AA history.

    I attended a Freethinker meeting on Long Island that summer and decided that we should have one here in Rochester, NY. In February of 2016 we began our Monday evening meeting at the Mack Building in Penfield.

    We adopted a version of the twelve steps that we found on the AA Agnostica website and read them at the beginning of our meeting. Then someone complained to the local intergroup. They sent the AA “police.” Well someone from their steering committee came and told us that if we continued to read a version of the steps different that AA’s approved one, we would be delisted from the local paper and online meeting list.

    Knowing that being listed was the only way to be “found” by others like us, believers and non believers, we acquiesced and stopped reading any version of the steps. We also don’t read How It Works. We do read the preamble and the excerpt of the Bill W. letter to the Grapevine suggesting anyone can start a meeting. When we close the chairperson simple says thanks for coming and have a good night.

    After the events of last 2016 and early 2017 that resulted in the Toronto intergroup’s reversing their listing decision we visited the leaders of the Rochester Intergroup and told them we would be reading our own version of the steps. In fact we took a meeting and using the original and the Freethinker’s version as template, we created our own version.

    AA has never been perfect. We should realize that it can only get better when thinking members recognize change is needed. And then act. Since I like attending AA meetings because I like helping others to recover I don’t restrict my attendance to secular meetings. And I feel a need, even a responsibility to talk honestly about being atheist and how the steps can be used to advantage by anyone who wishes to recover.

    I am not separate from AA though I think differently than many other members. So what!

    We are still a young organization that can, should and must continue to change to meet the needs of our members and more importantly those future members who need to know that drinking and drugging does not have to be a way of life. There is life after active addiction.

    My name is Tim and I am glad to know that I am alcoholic.

  13. As far as I am concerned AA has not declared itself a religion. I personally use the fellowships of AA+N.A. as my H.P., or rather the people in recovery. So far I have had no belief in any god.

    • Steve, why do you need a “higher power” at all?

      I would never question your right to have a higher power, or your right to remain unharassed by me or anyone else who think higher power stuff is nonsense, but I am just genuinely curious why so many people among us non-believers still buy the concept that a “higher power” is necessary.

      If that higher power is not an all powerful entity which can intervene in what would otherwise be the normal course of events, and can be petitioned in prayer to do so (even if bill wilson cautions us to only pray for its will for us) – then what is actually the purpose and benefit of having any sort of lesser higher power?

      • Thanks! Thinking outside of the box. There is pressure to conform and stay inside the confines.

  14. I find the report here regarding secular meetings as deeply shocking. I guess it is partly because I live in the U.K. and here although secular meetings exist there is only one that I know of near where I live. There are those who bang on about non believers and tell them they cannot be sober if they do not believe in God, but they are quite small in number, except when they decide to hijack meetings to bring them into line. In my local area they have succeeded in closing at least 4 meetings. It happened to my home group, another meeting that had existed for more than 20 years.

    I am a Christian preacher and went along to our local secular meeting with some apprehension, just because I felt a little awkward but I need not have worried, we were made very welcome by those there.

    Although I am a preacher I do not talk about God very much in meetings and I certainly do not speak of Jesus Christ, because I believe it is disrespectful to the meeting. I believe that every person has the right to believe in what they choose (but please not a doorknob it is one of the most stupid things I have ever heard).

    AA must remain non-exclusive so that all other alcoholics may attend meetings that have no requirement for membership other than a desire to stop drinking.

    • Not a doorknob …. hmmm …. why not a doorknob? How about a teapot in the sky? Oh Bejeeesus, wait a minute Lyn; you believe anything you like. I was losing the plot there, just because I don’t believe in supernatural entities, or like life-j, higher powers, what right have I to engage in how anyone else makes sense of the nonsense!!! A wee friendly jest from an atheist in Bonnie Scotland. 😉 🤝

  15. This is a wonderfully written and thought-out article which deserves publication in Grapevine for the benefit of all alcoholics – spiritual, religious or anything else. I commend Vic for his service in publishing it for the benefit of AA as a whole as well as for all alcoholics embarking on the journey of recovery.