Is AA Just For Christians?

By Barb C.
Copyright © AA Grapevine (October, 2003)

At the beginning of every meeting of my home group, we read, “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” This statement makes me feel good. As a person with strong spiritual, social, and political convictions, I wouldn’t have lasted a month in the program if AA had supported a political movement, economic interest, or organized religion. As it is, I’ve enjoyed two years of sobriety, spiritual growth, and amazing personal development in AA. I am past retirement age, but have never had a happier two years in my life.

However, there’s a fly in the ointment, for me and a few other AA members I know. It’s the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer at the end of our meetings. Two people have told me that they left my home group because of this. To me, insisting on the use of a prayer taken from the New Testament of the Christian Bible (Matthew 6:9-13) is a contradiction of AA’s commitment never to be “allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution.” As a Christian Internet source states, “Through this prayer, Jesus invites us to approach God as Father. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer has been called a summary of the Christian gospel.” I am not a Christian. My spirituality does not embrace a personal God in the image of a deity of either gender.

I often attend Big Book study meetings where we read AA’s assurances to alcoholics that they’re free to choose their own higher power: “When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.” We also read, “To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive.”

When I voice my objection to members of my home group, I’m generally told that the Lord’s Prayer is universal and applies to alcoholics of all creeds and religions, which is untrue. (The people who say this usually come from Christian backgrounds.) Some have implied that I’m being rebellious or controlling – in other words, behaving like an alcoholic. One woman suggested that I bring the matter up for a group conscience vote. I’m afraid to do this because I think I know what the outcome will be, and it will make me angry, and resentment is a feeling I can’t afford.

So, at the close of each meeting, I murmur my own prayer in cadence with the Lord’s Prayer, loud enough for my ears but not loud enough to disturb the group. While this helps, I still feel excluded from the group during the closing prayer. A little voice in me asks, “Why do they tell me I can have my own conception of God and then force theirs on me at the end of each meeting?” Moreover, I’ve often wondered why we have no Jews or Asians in our large morning meeting. Are there no Jewish or Asian alcoholics in Gainesville? Are they, too, turned off by our Christian orientation? Are we unwittingly discouraging people with non Christian beliefs from attending AA meetings?

Recently, I did an Internet search using the words “Lord’s Prayer” and “AA meetings” to see whether other recovering alcoholics shared my concern. I found more than two hundred links. In an e-journal article in Sober Times, a recovering alcoholic wrote, “Prayer at meetings, specifically the Lord’s Prayer, is a long-running hot topic that crops up on a regular basis at AA meetings around the world. To many AAs, the Twelve Steps may be, as the Big Book puts it, merely ‘suggested as a program of recovery,’ but the Lord’s Prayer is mandatory. . . . Insulting people with a prayer they do not believe in, or making them feel apart from instead of part of, is not helpful.” That’s exactly how I feel when I stand in the closing circle of our group and hear the Lord’s Prayer recited by everyone but me.

My Internet search also revealed that many Jews are troubled by AA’s use of the Lord’s Prayer. A website sponsored by Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others (JACS) contained an article by Rabbi Steven Morris describing his work with Jewish alcoholics. He says that he’s often asked, “Rabbi, can I say the Lord’s Prayer at the end of an AA meeting?” Rabbi Morris wrote, “The struggle for an answer has been a major focus of my rabbinical studies these last two years.” Obviously, I have company in my concern.

In another Internet article, reprinted from the Journal of Reform Judaism, a now-deceased alcoholic rabbi described how he requested the Central Committee of American Rabbis to address this issue in the mid-1980s. “The response of the committee was that the profound Christian associations of this prayer – particularly because it was prescribed by the founder of that faith – makes its use unacceptable to Jews.” A member of the committee advised, “As it is recited at the conclusion of the meeting, there is really no reason to participate. One can stand in silence, and I am sure that this would be respected and understood.”

An alcoholic who covered the Civil Rights movement in the sixties as a reporter, recently conducted an informal Internet survey of AA members and groups around the world, asking them to answer the questions: “What prayers do you use at your meetings?” and “Why?” E-mail responses came from sober Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, Native Americans, atheists, and pagans from North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. The responses indicated that most groups in non Christian parts of the world, particularly India and Asian countries, use the Serenity Prayer to close their meetings. A recovering alcoholic in Bangalore, India, reported that the Serenity Prayer has been translated into eight Indian languages and is used in most Alcoholics Anonymous meetings attended by Hindus and Buddhists. Some Japanese language groups modify the Serenity Prayer to omit the word “God.” Even in some primarily Christian countries like Australia and New Zealand, the Serenity Prayer is more common than the Lord’s Prayer. Other closing recitations reported in the survey were the Promises and AA’s Declaration of Responsibility. Native American groups often use a prayer to the Great Spirit.

If AAs are truly compassionate and accepting, why do they insist on closing meetings with a prayer to a God some of us don’t believe in? If I’m encouraged to find a God of my own understanding, why am I asked to pray to theirs? Words are important. If we mean what we say at the beginning of our meetings – “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution” – we should honor these words in the way we close our meetings.


9 Responses

  1. Jim C. says:

    I had 12 years of sobriety and, like resentment, this God thing continued to cause me distress. About a year ago I finally drank again. I am now out of the South, where it seems all are evangelicals. My new groups are agnostic and I don’t feel alone anymore.

  2. JackTheFinn says:

    Thank you “Lord,” that I found this website. I’m writing from Finland and thought that I was the only one with big time problems with the god-talk and god-texts. I’ve been sober for 4 years and now I feel scared to talk and be myself in the meetings, because I don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. We don’t have agnostic or atheist groups. I think we should. We have gay friendly groups and groups for women, why not for atheists? — All the best to you.

  3. bob k. says:

    To acknowledge the “openmindedness” of the “Grapevine”, this was published there in 2003. But nothing since, for the “anti” position. A very lengthy “pro Lord’s Prayer” article appeared in early 2011. To defend this indefensible position, a 1959 letter from Bill Wilson is frequently trotted and played like a trump card.

    Without disrespect to Bill’s position as a founder, his claim that the Lord’s Prayer was “generic” owing to “its widespread use”, made some sense fifty-three years ago when the prayer was used in football huddles, boy scout meetings, and public schools. In 2012, and for much time previously, the Lord’s Prayer is rarely found outside of Christian churches and AA. It was legislated out of our schools because it is not “generic”. Beyond the issues of who is offended, the use of this prayer is a contravention of our own principle of non-alliance, read near the start of almost every AA meeting.

    We will never know how many have been driven away by this practice. Were this ritual to be universally abandoned, Lord’s Prayer lovers could continue to pray the prayer, in silence, and for God’s ears only. What would be lost ? Their power to impose it on me.

    bob k in whitby

  4. Sasha L. says:

    I agree with the author. Our atheist/agnostic meeting, Happy Heathens, closes with “I am responsible; when anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA to be there, and for that, I am responsible.”

  5. Brenda says:

    Why have a prayer at all? Doesn’t AA say you can believe what you want, including not believing in a deity such as “God”?

    I actually am not going to meetings anymore in large part because of this nonsense and other things about AA that are hypocritical. I am trying to find some kind of other support, because I don’t want to drink, so I’m thankful for this website.

  6. Robin R. says:

    I agree with the writer. I also dislike the “understood” in the god as we understood, inferring that eventually we will “understand” their god as they understand. I too know of individuals that have left because of this and I suspect that it is a deterrent to many who would otherwise join our fellowship. All of the meetings in my area are closed in this way. Personally, I let my beliefs be known, but join in the circle as I refuse to exclude myself from this fellowship. I remain silent and repeat the 11th step prayer to myself.

  7. Larry K. says:

    The Lord’s Prayer is a very inappropriate prayer for many reasons. The author certainly hit the nail on the head in terms of how group members who recite it make claims of Universality. It isn’t a Universal Prayer at all. In fact, it offends many Christians that it is read publicly.

    The gospel of Matthew in the New Testament can hardly be called a universal document. Verses 6-13 in Chapter 6 are about how to pray and include “The Lord’s Prayer.”

    6. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

    7. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

    8. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

    9. “This, then, is how you should pray: [The rest of Matthew 9 through 13 is The Lord’s Prayer].

    Praying publicly is considered a pagan ritual. For many Christians it is idolatry to engage in the practice.
    In fact one of the biggest criticisms of AA has been from the Christian community.

    I don’t care much what anyone thinks or does, but this kind of recitation doesn’t serve a purpose other than to draw people into community. Any repetitious act will become a point of ceremonial worship. Our group finishes with the “Statement of Responsibility” written by Al S in 1956. It forms a personal pact or supports a credo. It is a statement of intention. It is a powerful tool to use ceremonial recitations this way and so I would choose which ones to pick very carefully. That is the way I see it anyway.

    Many of us step back and away when The Lord’s Prayer is recited at the end of an AA meeting. Some of us leave the room altogether. If anyone makes mention of what I choose to do then I have to really bite my tongue to not be hurtful in response. I believe that instituting any sectarian position is divisive and destructive to the groups over the long haul!

    We are a very large world, but we are getting smaller every day. For me, exclusion is the greatest enemy of our efforts. Unity is central and we must forever be searching for and holding our common ground. That is our singleness of purpose. To help the still suffering alcoholic.

    I do wish we would read the long form of Tradition Ten more often so that we can clearly remember that we must be vigilant to keep any sectarian position out of a meeting.

  8. Don S. says:

    Excellent piece.

    Religion is so familiar we forget how inappropriate it is when we want to be inclusive. Thy Kingdom come? This is a call to wipe earthly social structures from the earth and replace all of them with Christ’s reign on earth. Too literal? Then why use those words at all?

  9. Wally says:

    We shouldn’t even be saying the Serenity Prayer at the close of AA meetings; it’s allied with the Protestant Church.