“Spiritual, Not Religious” – The Hollow Claim of Alcoholics Anonymous
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
– Aldous Huxley
By Paul W.
As an organization, Alcoholics Anonymous has long claimed to be, “spiritual, not religious.” Admittedly, this is the intent of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA absolutely cannot let itself be associated with religion and being religious. Arguably, a great number of people associate religion with religious. The two have become inseparable.
AA has failed miserably to live up to its claim of “Spiritual, not Religious.” It is not so much that AA is religious, which it is, but that it isn’t spiritual. In fact, AA doesn’t appear to understand spiritual.
“Spiritual” According to AA
“Spiritual” in the Big Book, is often linked with prayer and God, without elaboration on what “spiritual” means. Here are a few examples:
Chapter 5, How it Works
Step 11, “Sought through prayer …”
Step 12 mentions the spiritual, “Having had a spiritual awakening …”
The third pertinent idea, “That God could and would [relieve one of alcoholism] if He were sought [prayer].”
Also, “We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”
Chapter 6, Into Action
“The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.” (Emphasis in the original.) There is no explanation on how to live spiritually.
Chapter 7, Working with Others
We “must walk day by day in the path of spiritual progress.”
Followed closely by “… put ourselves in God’s hands …”
“Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop.”
Chapter 9, The Family Afterward
The recovering alcoholic must “mend his spiritual fences.”
“We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative.”
The only discussion of “spiritual” in the “Big Book” is Appendix II, “Spiritual Awakening.” Unfortunately, Appendix II is also woefully inadequate in explaining the spiritual. It is quite possible that few AA members have actually read this appendix, much less understood spiritual, especially from a secular viewpoint.
Consequently, “Spiritual” has been left to members to define for themselves. Since the bulk of AA members are theists, and most of those Christian, it is not surprising that the spiritual should get tangled up and confused with religious or religion.
A few years ago, the General Service Conferences passed an Advisory Action calling for literature on spirituality which would include stories from atheists and agnostics. In spite of many submissions of personal stories, the Literature Committee failed to produce so much as a draft.
Later, a pamphlet titled, “Many Paths to Spirituality” was produced. It is a colossal failure, satisfying few be they theists or nontheists.
Recently a pamphlet, “The ‘God’ Word,” was produced. It has the following disclosure, “The original version of this pamphlet was first published by AA General Service Office (Great Britain).”
Clearly Alcoholics Anonymous (North America) can’t explain how it is “Spiritual” much less “not Religious.”
Why Can’t AA Define “Spiritual”?
Why does Alcoholics Anonymous find spiritual and spirituality so difficult to explain? Could it be that religious, theistic people (most of traditional AA) have been so focused on the religious connection, on praying to a Higher Power (holy spirit) and on the spirit world that they just can’t separate the two? Could it be because the Big Book and the Twelve Steps are so intertwined with spirit = prayer = god = supernatural, that they are one in the minds of so many?
In AA, the first Twelve Principles are the Twelve Steps. Only Step Twelve mentions spiritual, and that as an experience. “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Six of the Twelve Steps (50%) are god-focused, directly or by obvious inference:
- Step 2. “… a Power greater than …” (Euphemism for God)
- Step 3. “… God as we understood Him.” (Morphed into “as I understand Him)
- Step 5. “Admitted to God …“
- Step 6. “… to have God remove …”
- Step 7. “… asked Him …” (Euphemism for God)
- Step 11. “… God as we understood Him …”
It is clear that the Steps are intended to bring followers to a God. And all gods demand, directly or indirectly, worship i.e. prayers. Prayers are closely related to religion. Praying is a religious act.
With the Steps as “the way to sobriety” it is not surprising that AA can’t define “Spiritual” in secular/nonreligious terms.
I posit that there is no need for an elaborate, all inclusive, definition of spirituality or spiritual in secular terms. And, to do so would be scholastic, pretentions, and boring.
Personally, I find it simple. I start with whatever moves me emotionally. Something that brings deeply pleasant or bittersweet feelings. If this seems too simple to be of any value, just try it yourself. For starters, here are a few personal examples:
Remembering the sight of any of my new born children.
The smile in her eyes when my now wife said “yes” to my proposal of marriage.
Listening to music that “sweeps me away.” (e.g. Turandot, the Marine Corps Hymn, the triumphant music in a movie as the victors arrive, the first cords of Beethoven’s 5th symphony in “The Longest Day” as the German officer first fees the invasion fleet, and even some religious music.)
The feelings of awe and wonder I get while contemplating the vastness of the known universe.
The sadness I feel when thinking of my long-deceased father.
The look in the eyes of my daughter when she was pronounced cancer-free.
For me it’s really that simple.
I also found examples of secular spirituality from other sources. These have also moved me deeply, spiritually:
The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust. Our atoms came from stars. The universe is in us.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
Spirituality is nothing less than the thoughtful love of life. Spirituality, like philosophy, is coming to grips with the big picture and with it our need for a larger sense of our lives.
Robert C. Solomon
I believe that anyone who is truly interested in secular spirituality can easily find it. No miracles, no supernatural causes, no god or gods of any kind, no religion are necessary.
Alcoholics Anonymous could easily find secular spirituality but it is too bound to the Big Book’s “sacred” 164 pages, the veneration of Bill’s words, and the near-adoration of Dr. Bob and Bill W. as saintly co-founders of AA.
Spirituality for the Skeptic, Robert C. Solomon, Oxford University Press, 2002.
The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, Andre Comte-Sponville, Penguin Books, 2007.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books, 1996.
The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, Michael Shermer, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.
- Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris, Simon And Schuster, 2015
Once again, spirituality is found in anything which profoundly “moves” a person, even if temporarily. Music does that for many people. It is not limited to one kind of music. Classical, operatic arias, military marches, jazz, rock are examples; as is “sacred” or church music. Thoughtfulness, such as pondering the majesty of the universe and reflecting on our miniscule place in it is spiritual in that it is profoundly moving.
AA … not Religious?
While it may not be a religion, the fact that AA is religious is clear, no matter how many times AA “leaders” at all levels claim otherwise.
So clear in fact that multiple courts, including U.S. District courts, have ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous is religious. Because of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of Church (religion) and State (secular) where these rulings apply, no governmental body may force attendance at AA meetings, in any manner.
The basis for the courts’ rulings often reference the “religious practices allowed and even led by AA “officials.” With or without court rulings, they easily make the argument that AA is religious. Here’s what one of these courts, the New York Court of Appeals, in the case of Griffin v. Coughlin, had to say about the matter:
A fair reading of the fundamental AA doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious.
Indeed, the AA basic literature most reasonably would be characterized as reflecting the traditional elements common to most theistic religions.
The foregoing demonstrates beyond peradventure that doctrinally and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization… In “working” the 12 steps, participants become actively involved in seeking such a God through prayer, confessing wrongs and asking for removal of shortcomings. These expressions and practices constitute, as a matter of law, religious exercise.
GSC Advisory Actions “forbid” any changes to all but the individual stories in the Big Book.
The Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office, Inc. and Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. have allowed through its silence religion-like rituals to exist without a secular explanation. None of these practices have been officially disavowed or discouraged by corporate AA. The fact that such religious-like practices exist without General Service Conference Advisory Actions discouraging them is instructive. AA’s assertions of group autonomy have fallen on “deaf ears” in court, human rights agencies, and in the hearts and minds of many.
Since Alcoholics Anonymous cannot separate spiritual from supernatural and conducts much of its own affairs in a religious manner, it seems that the line, “Spiritual, not Religious” should be “Spiritual and Religious.”
 The General Service Conference issues “Advisory Actions” which represent “substantial unanimity” of the Conference, representing all of AA. Every Advisory Action begins with “It was recommended that” followed by the text of the recommendation. All Advisory Actions are suggestions. This includes the ones which “froze” parts of the Big Book, especially the first 164 pages. AAWS, Inc., GSO, Inc., and most of AA’s members act as if it is some kind of inerrant truth that the Big Book can’t be changed because of GSC recommendations. That this is a misunderstanding is evidenced by the fact that in spite of the Advisory Action cited above, corporate AA was not been able to produce even a draft of the called for literature.
Paul W has been a member of AA since 1989. He first joined AA while he was attempting to hold onto belief in a God by “faking it till he made it.” Eventually Paul made peace with himself and came out as a comfortable and convinced atheist; in some situations, he calls himself a “Secular Humanist.” He has spoken at Area functions about the lack of literature for nonbelievers and has been a supporter of recognizing non-theists as full members of AA. He sponsors several AA members, theists as well as nontheists. AA Agnostica has published several articles critiquing the Big Book authored by Paul. Before retirement, he was a consultant with an international professional services firm where he specialized in education and organizational behavior. Paul and his wife live in New Jersey, she a Christian of her own definition and he an atheist. They have six children (50% atheists), six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.