“Spiritual, Not Religious” – The Hollow Claim of Alcoholics Anonymous

Spiritual but not Religious?

 “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[1] 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.

Secular Spirituality

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.

Carl Sagan

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.

Waking UpIf more is needed, these books would be a good start:

  • 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. Coughlinhad 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.”

[1] 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.


37 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    I dared to suggest on a social media forum that the Big Book needed updating due to it’s thinly disguised Christianity. I also said that phrases such as “Your heavenly Father will never let you down” were ludicrous. My post was almost immediately taken down and I was expelled from the group. I have found over the last few years a degree of fanaticism within the fellowship and subsequently I am careful which groups I attend.I have been sober for forty years and owe my life and sanity to the fellowship and I’m glad I came to AA when I was told don’t drink, go to meetings and keep it simple. Thanks for all the work you do.

  2. Geo says:

    This article is something to consider; thanks to the writer… In my own case it’s not AA that needs to change, but me instead…

  3. Thomas K. says:

    I do not believe AA is religious in any sense of the word. Perhaps we have different understandings of spirituality or belief in some sense of power greater than we are or choose to believe there is no such thing. One of the freedoms AA has given me back in sobriety is to make this choice myself. One of my earlier sponsors gave me a cautionary piece of advice to help me make decisions: “Whether I agree of not, does not change the facts “… And I don’t know what these facts are.

    There are obviously some in AA who live it and preach it like a religion. We are all on different paths and at different points along that path. Tolerance, patience are two of our objectives that allow me to continue to come back for more sharing of fellow members experience hope and strengths and I am regularly amazed to see how I have changed and how others have also changed in their views and beliefs. Trust yours and share your sobriety as you see fit but don’t be threatened by those who may believe and work it differently.

  4. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you so much for this article. You’ve articulated many of the things I’ve thought and noticed about AA since coming back to AA earlier this year. I’ve spent a lot of time and mental and emotional energy translating the word “God” to “higher power” or really just “power” – the word “God” is such a loaded word, supported by centuries of religious tradition and history. Translating and substituting are extremely distracting from the real work of AA. Why not change the word “God” to something more generic if that’s what AA members say it can be? Thanks again. Well written and much appreciated.

  5. Leslie says:

    AA is very clear about the fact that although the BB and the steps were written with the word God, you can make anything your Higher Power. I am confused myself as to what my beliefs are, so I use Mother Nature. And the word Higher Power is offered as a way to replace the word God but you can use any word you want. If you have a sponsor that can’t fly with your beliefs, then get another one. The goal in AA is to recognize that there is something bigger out there than us. Things were written with the word God because that’s what the founders believe. Although they do use the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer it doesn’t mean that that is what you have to believe in. I substitute everything in my head that I need to. AA welcomes everyone, no matter what your beliefs are. Anything can be our own personal God. It’s all in how you choose to look at it.

    • life-j says:

      Leslie, this is the sort of confusion I was trying to address last week: Why do you have to put yourself through all these contortions to try to come up with a higher power just because the big book says so? If you really want one, or if it came “naturally” to adopt one, then yes, by all means, but the big book has so much nonsense in it – why does it have to be this idea of a higher power that people so adamantly believe is the most unassailable eternal truth in the Big Book?

      A) We do need help. We can’t do it on our own. And human help is just fine. B) If we happen to have developed a grandiose streak in the course of our drinking, that’s something we need to deal with, and seek a balanced humility.

      What else? Nothing! No higher power is needed.

      I get so sad and pissed off when I hear some newcomer sit and express their frustrated attempt to “find” a higher power. Reminds of the old goofy joke: Where do you find elephants? You don’t, they’re so big nobody ever drops them. If there were higher powers, it would probably be obvious where and who and what they were, and they would let you know in uncertain terms. As it said, tongue in cheek, on the banner at the Austin convention:

      Human power can relieve our alcoholism. May you find us now!

    • life-j says:

      “The goal in AA is to recognize that there is something bigger out there than us.”

      I just noticed this passage. IS that really the goal? I think it is to not drink, and to learn to get along with our fellow human beings and make ourselves useful. As for recognizing that there is something bigger out there than us, I think that is couching in religious terms the simple need for humility. It is not enough to simply be humble. We need to find a god to be humble to, or at least be humble to the universe, for all it cares. So further, C) Awe and wonder is a good thing. It appears to be a healthy thing to immerse our minds in the beauty, variety and vastness of the world we live in. But why does the obvious observation that the universe is bigger than me have to induce me to start fantasizing about higher powers?

      “But when you look at a beautiful sunset, doesn’t that make you wonder who made all this?” – no it doesn’t – and if there is/were a creator I don’t think any wonderings of mine about it would do anything other than contribute to nonsensical assumptions and confusion about the issue.

      If the primary object of having a higher power is to attain humility then let’s just get down and work on getting humble.

  6. Joe K. says:

    I find spiritual not religious to be a bait and switch. To me the book equates spirituality with religion especially when it talks of intelligent design, asking Him, etc…Spirituality is such a loaded word to begin with. I don’t even use it. Well, I try not to use it, I’ve been known to say spirituality fist here and there. I usually leave any kind of theism out of my shares, but it’s frustrating when I do disclose that I’m an atheist or I don’t believe in god, someone will inevitably approach me and say: “I used to be just like you, or I used to struggle with god.” I don’t struggle, I just don’t believe. I do struggle with the lack of love and tolerance when you say you don’t believe. I usually try to use the word connection or the need to feel connected instead of the word spiritual.

    • Ngaire says:

      I like what you shared. I don’t say I’m an Atheist anymore because I’m tired of people bringing me articles to read, trying to evangelize me after meetings.
      They look generally uncomfortable if they know there is an Atheist in their midst.

  7. Great post; great discussion.

    AAs are people divided by a common language. English, as a means of communication is a flawed tool; useful but not perfect.

    When the rebuttal to “But AA is so religious” is given, “AA is spiritual, not religious,” answers a different question that the one posed.

    It is true that AA is not an organized religion. We don’t have a hierarchy, I can’t be kicked out of AA for non-conformity and neither can my group (when AA principles are followed). In a religion I can be dismissed for not holding the majority worldview. Because I do not believe in a prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power, this makes me a minority in AA, not an outcast. So AA isn’t an organized religion.

    But that’s not answering the concern brought up by the question. “God” even an “as you understand Him, Her, It, They” God is a religious tenant. A creator is a religious tenant. The AA idea of a personal, intervening higher power was not an AA construct; it was borrowed directly from religion, specifically from the Judeo/Christian culture that all AA founders were raised with. They may or may not have rejected their religious formality of their family but holding an idea of an interventionist, anthropomorphic higher power is a borrowed – but still religious – worldview. Praying and a creed that includes the notion of Divine intervention is religious ritual. AA is full of religious language and religious ritual. As the Preamble states, it is not associated with any sect or denomination, but that doesn’t mean “not religious.” Monotheism is religion, Christianity is just a type of monotheism.

    So, if you ask me if AA is religious, I’ll ask, “What do you mean?” I will listen to your answer. It’s not a black and white question, as far as I’m concerned. If AA was a religious organizational structure, we wouldn’t/couldn’t have secular meetings that were AA meetings. We’re not a religion, in this regard (our structure).

    But to tell me AA isn’t religious because you don’t belong to a church, you just rent a room there, that, as the essay eloquently insists, is not logical (Thank you Mr. Spock). AA’s structure is secular – in keeping with the definition, “Neither religious nor irreligious.” You can be as religious or as spiritual as you want or you can be as material and non-theistic as you want. You can reject any idea of “spiritual” or “collective consciousness” or external forces and be one of the crowd in AA. Your position will be a minority position but you get one vote in your AA meeting, like anyone else.

    The Big Book is of course full of religious ideology, as are the Steps. Living Sober, on the other hand, is a very secular “conference approved” AA book. I know people who take what they like and leave the rest and instead of fighting with the Big Book, read something else, like Living Sober (or Living Clean by NA which is written in the 2012 language it was written in).

    So, my experience is the AA structure is not religious; nor is it irreligious. Autonomy in Traditions Two, Three, Four and Five ensurers that members and our groups can accept or reject anything we want and there is no authoritative body that rightfully can judge or influence us.

    The popular tenets of AA are religious tenets, regardless of the religious status of the person speaking of them as truth. Because I can reject these religious views completely doesn’t make them non-religious. Popular AA literature and rituals (prayer/The Big Book etc) are religious in their nature.

    So is AA religious? “What do you mean?” is one way to answer. “Which meeting are you asking about?” is another way to answer.

    I don’t think anyone could attend my AA meeting and call it a religion. My AA meeting is as AA as anyone else’s. I know, because we get one vote at District and Area just like god-fearing groups.

  8. Linda C. says:

    Thank you, Paul, for your excellent article… there is, in my opinion, a thin line between spirituality (as you and I describe it) and many people’s understanding of religious experience… I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, and yet I see the love, joy, and enlightenment in many who “call it God”…

    I was silent for over 10 years about my atheism because I didn’t like the condescension and paternalism I experienced when I expressed it. I have never enjoyed being told “God will find you, honey… don’t worry” or “you’re just not looking the right place, dear, may I call you?” Etc., etc.

    I spent over thirty years in AA General Service and when I was about ten years sober (eight years of GS under my belt), a dear and wonderful (and an intellectual giant) grabbed me one day after a discussion about atheism in AA and said, “You have no right not to speak out about your perspective and your beliefs and knowledge!!! People are coming into AA every day who need to know that, whatever their beliefs, there is room in AA for all who want to get sober… including those of us who don’t believe in an anthropomorphic godhead. You go get ’em, girl!!”

    From that day on I have done my best to be respectful of all approaches to the ecstasy and comfort and love and compassion that seem to define many of the religious minded and the rest of us, too. But at the same time, stepping on toes or not, I let my home group members (and visitors) know that I do not have a personal god and don’t want or need one. (I also ask people not to commiserate with me after the meeting and I won’t commiserate with them, either… live and let live).

    Re the 164 pages of the Big Book: Here is my problem with rewriting it: who is going to do it and who is going to approve it? We atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers… might I say “enlightened” …?? I agree that it is misleading, archaic in many ways, illogical, and, yes, dangerous in some ways. But how would we even begin?

    The conference process is not perfect, but having experienced it as a Delegate, I believe the relationship between the trustees, directors, staff and conference is as balanced a process as we could possibly ever actually achieve. But the idea of introducing a re-written version of the 164 pages to be read, re-read, written, re-written, ad infinitum… causing hysterical, vitriolic, fractious and divisive reaction from the fellowship… well, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

    Maybe there’s a possibility of a “New Age Big Book”? Something like the New Age Bible? that could be published as a separate text? Still, I see tempestuous waters ahead….

    I participated in two of the conferences that were trying to get the publication off the ground that “included stories by atheist and agnostic alcoholics who had gotten and stayed successfully sober”… I heard wonderful, sober members of the conference declare (in all seriousness) that “those people” should not be allowed in AA. Yes, we didn’t get off the ground with the publication.

    I think The God Word pamphlet (which is AAWS literature, btw) and the Grapevine book, One Big Tent, are two enormous and spectacular steps in the right direction. I started a secular group in January “Freethinkers” and we read one of the stories from One Big Tent each evening and discuss.

    AA is flawed… but many of us, despite our “outside views” have stayed sober and found a home in it. I would rather continue to speak up, in a respectful, inclusive way than hurl angry and hurtful slings and arrows at the program, GSO, the GS Conference, and those who have different perspectives. I like Bob F.’s comments earlier that it is the act rather than the object that matters and that we can, if we wish, all agree on.

  9. Sarah J. says:

    This is a great article, thank you! This is why I prefer NA, as it’s not tied to the outdated language of the Big Book (although it is obviously heavily influenced by the ideas in it). NA literature gives a concrete roadmap to spirituality without religion – we use the term ‘spiritual principles’ for how we live our lives. I use ‘spiritual principles’ like honesty, acceptance, willingness, tolerance, love, patience etc etc to improve my recovery and my life, and my ‘spiritual condition’. This makes sense to me as a secular person.

  10. Bob B says:

    Over the years I’ve defined for myself ‘spiritual awakening’ as the ‘spirit within me’ awakens. This spirit is my humanity, my connection with the world, my place in it. I know when it happens because I feel a wave of gratitude wash over me. Sometimes a big wave, sometimes small. What triggers it, maybe a nice walk in the woods or catching a person eating alone and lost in thought. It isn’t anything special, usually just some mundane thing we all do that connects us as humans.

  11. Bob F. says:

    With all the discussion of the philosophical vulnerability of theism, I would like to suggest that – theist or atheist – what facilitates healing/recovery is faith which is the belief or trust in something that provides a sense of comfort, safety and reliability. Being critical of any given object of faith is, I would hold, being disrespectful of each person’s right to choose an object of faith as they understand it. How an object of faith is characterized will predictably cause disagreement. But, as always, we are indisputably advised to take what we like and leave the rest. If we can learn to accept that faith and not its object is the crucial variable, then perhaps we can move away from endless God and AA bashing and focus on the magic of faith and its healing power. Let us be at peace with one another knowing we are bound by faith and not its object.

    In recovery,

    • life-j says:

      Bob, I like your thoughts here, and agree much of the way. The big problem is those oldtimers with a cemented world view who try to impose the basic framework of their religion on newcomers: You don’t have to have my god, but you have to have one. It seems that for practical purposes there is no way to push back against that without, incidentally, pushing against their world view too. And to the extent they won’t let go, and stop trying to impose their worldview on newcomers, the pushback against them will almost invariably become disrespectful toward their religion even though to begin with we tried not to.

      I really can’t see how to avoid that, though I do try real hard to not single out individuals to the extent this disrespect can’t seem to be avoided.

      Respect is, after all a two-way street, and it seems that Christians and moslems have this mandate to proselytize and convert, and while of course these days most of these religious people are sensible enough to not do it, and be respectful, it seems that there is an element of this proselytizing and conversion mania which is as strong in AA as in any down home bible belt Christian sect.

      What are we going to do? We can’t just sit and watch while they are bashing newcomers with the Big Book.

      • Bob F. says:

        I think all we can do is to establish as many secular meetings as possible to avoid the proselytizing. Another idea would be to encourage secular members without access to a secular meeting,to keep in touch, back channel, with other non-theist members. The more we can find ways to avoid the theist energy, the less will our recovery be impeded by beliefs we do not share. I would like to see AA Agnostica serve more as a forum for discussing issues related to secular recovery than a soap box for reacting to theism. The more we criticize, howsoever correctly, theism the longer we inadvertently give it power. Let’s let go of the god and AA bashing and focus on what does work for us in the Program rather than what doesn’t.

        • life-j says:

          Bob, that is indeed a good goal, and I work toward it all the time, but when I hear a newcomer – even sometimes a long term sober agnostic – lament their struggles with finding a higher power I get all riled up again, and start looking for a way back up on the barricades…..

          • Bob F. says:


            What you wrote about new and older secular members struggling with finding a higher power highlights something that deserves more discussion. So much of the opposition to theism that is posted to AA Agnostica describes exactly what we secular members want nothing to do with. What I think could be very helpful would be to invite AA Agnostica contributors to share what they feel would be the most comfortable image of a secular higher power. For many persons who have been abused, in childhood, both the words higher= ‘bigger than’ and power = controlling are anathema being highly emotionally and experientially charged. For myself, I prefer the idea of having a ‘spiritual friend’, as the Sufis term it, with whom I can talk, express my deepest feelings, hopes and fears, knowing this friend is always available and can be completely trusted.

    • John Bunnell says:

      Bob – Your definition of faith… “the belief or trust in something that provides a sense of comfort, safety and reliability,” caught my eye. It seems to me that this definition of faith assumes it to be a benign concept that could never be used to inflict harm on another human being. I think that you are right on, “that how an object of faith is characterized will cause disagreement,” but misused faith can go far beyond simple disagreement. Ill conceived faith can and is used to justify self-righteous bigotry. Self-righteous because I view my faith as the only acceptable view, and bigoted because my view is superior to your view. I’m right, you are wrong, therefore you are inferior. Blind faith has rarely led me to a good place. You are right, we need less “bashing”, but reasoned opposition isn’t necessarily bashing.

  12. Kevin B. says:

    Thanks for this essay… luckily I live in the Chicago area where I find quite a few meetings that deemphasize the God/religious parts of the program… I also like that definition of spiritual experience.

    When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered.

    That did happen and continues to happen but nothing like a God had anything to do with it.

  13. Nancy A. says:

    Thanks for this essay, Paul! I agree with most everything you propose and claim. The “take what you need and leave the rest” ignores the exclusion that I feel in religious AA meetings (which in my area is the vast majority). My homegroup says the Lord’s Prayer at the end of every meeting, and I go back and forth between joining the circle silently and sitting out. Some say that I disrupt the unity of the group when I sit out, so I will acquiesce a lot. I haven’t been able to articulate how excluded I feel in a way that moves my homegroup to the point of not saying the Lord’s Prayer. I love my group and I do find the 12 steps and principles a wonderful guide for living a sober and serene life, so I stay and do service and such. Sometimes, though, I have to take breaks from attending meetings to get a breath of fresh, secular air in other meetings or out in nature. The question I get asked about how important my sobriety is to me when I talk about feeling like an outsider seems like a false choice to me…

  14. Bobby Beach says:

    In the real world, I have a simple answer to “Are you spiritual?” “No, I’m not.” The term comes with a lot of baggage. Some atheist spirituality I find interesting. Some I find to be “trying too hard.”

    I like music, and I can relate to calling it spiritual, but tacking on that appellation doesn’t enhance the enjoyment for me.

    As for “Spiritual, not religious,” most AA members spew that like the two things are polarities apart. They aren’t. Classic spirituality is religion’s brother.

  15. Marty N. says:

    “We’re not religious, so lets circle-up, hold hands, and say a Christian prayer”.

  16. Debra S. says:

    “Take what works and leave the rest behind”, was the saying that got me through all the religious references. Religion seems to be in everything. I keep my balance by reminding myself that I am not obligated to conform to anyone else’s idea of sobriety. Find people who are of like mind and beliefs, I especially gravitate towards people who are tolerant of different mindsets. If you want sobriety you will find a way through, just like we found a way to use a substance that did not work for us.

  17. Ed Sweeney says:

    “Spiritual not religious” is a good example of “Gaslighting.”

  18. Ken P. says:

    Thank you, Paul. Twenty-one years ago, I also came to AA with the “Fake it till you make it,” mantra playing in my head. After about 9 years, I came out as atheist to my sponsor, but he did not accept this or want me to say it in meetings, so I just kept my head down and did what I needed to do for me.

    Fast forward to retirement, another city and another sponsor. He keeps saying that AA is spiritual and not religious. Even says (out loud) that the Lord’s Prayer is a spiritual prayer and has nothing to do with religion. Fortunately none of the meetings I attend use that prayer. I have even mentioned in group conscience that I could not attend a meeting that uses that prayer. The issue has not come up and I certainly hope it doesn’t.

    Anyway, thank you for highlighting this for all of us non-theists.

  19. life-j says:

    Hmm, I fail to see how the Marine Corps hymn is any better for spirituality than the worst which AA has to offer…

    Triumph Of The Will is equally spiritual.

  20. Dan L. says:

    Thanks Paul W. for your essay. Coming into recovery with a program largely based in AA I was forced to look carefully at my life long atheism. To make a very long story short I could not make heads nor tails of this “Higher Power” that was supposed to somehow, maybe, some of the time assist an alcoholic in some perfectly vague and undefined way. If the “Steps” were done “right”.

    When a believer casually states your higher power can be anything even a door knob it seems to me the entire necessity for such a thing vanishes. The moment the first honest atheist was able to use AA to effect a recovery the whole idea is collapsed.

    The Fellowship does provide me with a strength and depth of wisdom and stability that I could never have developed in my single lifetime. For this I am grateful. I cannot find any part of my “AA” program that could require divine intervention. It is all nuts and bolts.

    I feel that when the decision was made to leave the Book unchanged forever it was a huge step toward the religious cultiness we see today. Probably a fatal move. The book is become a fetish.

    I like to picture God on her heavenly throne, resting after the huge rush engendered by the Great War and Spanish Flu preparing for the even bigger influx about to commence in 1939. The angel Gabriel is at her feet painting her toe nails. God is poking through her mail bag and pulls out a copy of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”.

    “What the f*ck is all this then?” After scanning some pages she concludes, “I can’t figure out what this guy is talking about. I don’t even exist. He was just trippin’ balls man…”

    The book is tossed into the heavenly pile of discarded literature.


  21. keith d says:

    I live in an uber-conservative part of the state and attend traditional AA meetings because there is no secular choice. The problem here is twofold. First is the lack of a secular alternative to traditional AA. The second is very insidious, and I’ve seen it time and again. AA groups funnel newcomers into the bevy of fundamentalist churches that plague this area. Once they’re in there the right-wing indoctrination starts. These churches and the AA groups they work with are intent on breeding the worst sort of conservative Christians and, from what I’ve seen, they’re successful.

  22. Gabe S says:

    Thanks Paul. I rather like the description of “spiritual experiences” on p 27 of the Big Book as:

    …huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

    I would say a transformation like that happened to me, but gradually rather than suddenly (as described in Appendix II, which you mention). For me, spirituality involves aiming (a) to adapt myself to conditions, rather than trying to force conditions to be as I think they should be, and (b) to give rather than to receive. I have been doing my best to use the 12 Steps as a design for living and I find that they show me in some depth and detail how to live spiritually. It’s cool. I used to be combative and stressed out and now I am usually serene, content and happy to be able to help people. I feel connected to people and to the rest of the universe in an emotionally healthy way.

    I learned a great deal from the Big Book and more from the Twelve and Twelve. I just substituted natural phenomena for ‘God’ in the Steps, added a large dose of Zen meditation to Step 11 and it all seemed to follow fairly easily and naturally.

  23. Steve K says:

    I enjoyed reading your article Paul. Check out my essay: ‘AA Spiritual and Religious’, for a complementary viewpoint… AA Spiritual and Religious.

  24. Courtney S. says:

    I just sat there reading this… saying to myself… “Yup”… “Yup” and more “Yups”. As an Atheist it was easy for me to discount a God. Spirituality on the other hand was difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. To often the “woo-woo’s” irritated me to distraction. I like Paul’s personal concept of Spirituality that attempts to put into words that which may be impossible to define concretely. It works for him. As an Atheist, the mere word Spirituality appears antithetical. There is no doubt that AA seems to be completely unable to elaborate on this, or even worse, purposely opposed to any enlightenment whatsoever. It is no wonder a Secular approach is beginning to find resonance in the “Body Alcoholic”. Thank You Paul for the Sunday Morning reminder that I am not alone.

  25. John S says:

    I define AA as my home group, and my home group does not claim to be “spiritual and not religious”, but instead describes our meeting as “secular” which it is. We keep copies of “The God Word” pamphlet on hand, but we don’t read from AAWS literature because we have a difficult time with the religious/spiritual language.

    Thankfully where I live, there are seven secular AA meetings a week, so I am never exposed to religious AA. If anyone doesn’t like the religious orientation of the AA meeting they attend, I encourage them, if they are in the position to do so, to start their own secular AA meeting.

    If the number of AA meetings with a secular orientation outnumber the religiously oriented meetings, then more people will have a secular experience and maybe that will be the experience reflected in more of the literature published by AAWS and approved by the General Service Conference.

    There are many members of my home group who have never experienced an AA meeting that begins and ends with prayer and reads from old literature based on religious experiences, so they have never been introduced to this concept of “spiritual and not religious.”

    The autonomy of individual AA groups, which are in fact the highest authority in AA’s service structure, is the brilliance of AA in my opinion.

  26. Ngaire says:

    Thanks a lot for this Article.

    I think AA is totally Religious. I used to buy into that Dogma that AA is “Spiritual not Religious” but it’s straight up Religion.

    It’s also Shaming, Humiliating, Self Righteous and basically very confused.

    Again, Thanks!

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