Religion and AA
By Dean W
For about twenty-five years I was your average, traditional AA member. Then over about five years I gradually became an agnostic AA member. In 2018 I helped start an agnostic group, which is now my home group and the only group I attend regularly. Two things recently bothered me. First, I visited my previous home group, a traditional AA meeting. Second, I read the AA pamphlet “The God Word.” The meeting at my old home group consisted of God-oriented readings, the introduction of a topic by the chairperson, and a very God-oriented discussion, all bracketed by prayer. The incessant God talk and prayer to a god I don’t believe in annoyed me. “The God Word” pamphlet bothered me because the first sentence claims that “AA is not a religious organization.” My response is, “Since when?”
Although AA claims to be spiritual, not religious, people outside AA generally see through this semantic fog. Historian Ernest Kurtz addresses the issue in Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (1979). He notes that from AA’s beginning, “ministers… sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists” have “clearly and consistently” seen “the key to the program and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous… to be ‘religion’” (p. 176).
In his book, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion (1988), William E. Paden includes AA with other religious groups in his analysis of religious systems. He asks, “What is it that makes anything religious?” His answer: “religion… constitutes a special kind of phenomena, a special kind of experience, a special kind of system positing its own kind of world” (p. 47-48). The idea of differing religious worlds is key. Each religion creates and lives in its own universe (p. 51). While religious worlds vary greatly, in Paden’s comparative framework they are all composed of four common elements: gods, myths, rituals, and systems of purity. These elements establish, delineate, and maintain religious worlds, and it is easy to identify these four elements in AA. Note that Paden’s use of the word myth does not mean untrue. His method is used only to describe religious systems, not to determine their veracity.
When AA left the Oxford Group it took with it the Oxford Group’s god and mythology. The Big Book describes God as the monotheistic, omnipotent, and interventionist Creator and Father, your basic Biblical deity. When Bill Wilson had his hot flash conversion at Towns Hospital in 1934 he exclaimed, “So this is the God of the preachers!” (AA Comes of Age, 1957, p. 63). In 1940, as Bill recounted his first attempts to help other alcoholics, he wrote, “Believing so firmly that Christ can do anything, I had the unconscious conceit to suppose that He would do everything through me – right then and in the manner I chose” (As Bill Sees It, 1967, p. 114).
Bill’s hot flash conversion combined with the Oxford Group’s mythology is the basic AA myth. In addition to god and myth, a religious world needs rituals. There are many rituals in AA, but perhaps the most fundamental is identified by William L. White in Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (1988). White describes recovery in AA as a process of “identity reconstruction” that involves, among other things, the “ritual retelling” of our personal stories. “The recitation seems to serve as a life-saving incantation that quells cravings and compulsions. And story telling, in its need for an audience, links the alcoholic to others” (p. 145-147). Religious worlds also need a system of purity, and AA’s Twelve Steps, with their emphasis on removing character defects, are an obvious example.
So traditional AA consists of all four of Paden’s elements: god, myth, ritual, and a system of purity. Traditional AA is a religious world. As an agnostic, no wonder I felt out of place at my old home group. And since I see the AA fellowship as a religious group, no wonder I was bothered by “The God Word” pamphlet’s denial of this. At my current, agnostic home group we don’t pray. We don’t read the Daily Reflection, How It Works, or The Promises. We don’t extol the Twelve Steps as printed in 1939 as the only true AA path. We don’t believe that any god is expressing himself in our group conscience. Unlike my old home group and the AA fellowship in general, we are not religious.
Or are we? Paden’s framework is broad enough to include secular systems. He says, “the sacred is not just a possession of theistic religions. The sacred is that on which life is believed to be inviolably based” and examples of the sacred can include “the sanctity of individual rights, social justice, freedom, and equality.” So the sacred, as Paden uses the term, can be nonreligious. And “the sacred defines the world” (p. 167, emphasis mine). A key to understanding any religious system is to ask, “Where is the sacred?” (p. 59).
Where indeed? The sacred in traditional AA is sometimes obvious, as when God is invoked. Other times it is implied, as when members appeal to the alleged authority of the Big Book. It’s not surprising that the Big Book is treated as scripture in many groups. Paden notes that new religious groups “often elevate the ‘inspired’ words of the founder to mythic status” (p. 81). I think the AA fellowship also holds the original “AA message” sacred. The forwards to all four editions of the Big Book mention the AA message, and documenting and preserving “the integrity of the AA message” is emphasized (4th edition, 2001, p. xxiv). Exactly what constitutes the “AA message” is debatable, but in my opinion the traditional AA message is the Twelve Steps as written in the Big Book, hence Step Twelve’s suggestion that we try to carry “this message.” Of course the Steps are only suggestions, but apparently for the majority of our fellowship they are deified suggestions. Holy cognitive dissonance, Batman! How can the Steps be both suggested and sacred?!
How indeed? I see our fellowship’s continuing failure to look critically at the Big Book (and the rest of our foundational literature) as a serious credibility issue. Today many newcomers to AA, like the outsiders described by Kurtz, can see through our semantic fog as we claim to be nonreligious. And the proliferation of secular AA shows that the Big Book paradigm of recovery, that all real alcoholics need a god-based recovery, is simply wrong. Yet as a fellowship, we still cling to that religious paradigm. Our continuing failure to put our fellowship into clear historical, social, and ideological contexts surely turns off a lot of people. I see our fellowship’s continuing emphasis on “the integrity of the AA message” as a stubborn unwillingness to question a clearly outdated concept of the sacred.
Even though my home group is secular, what we consider the inviolable basis of life still creates a world for us. In my group I think we consider the power of the group inviolable; alcoholics helping alcoholics. I think we see freedom of conscience, each member’s right to their own beliefs and practices, as inviolable. I think this is particularly true regarding the freedom to choose a personal recovery path, even if that path doesn’t fit the Big Book’s religious paradigm. I imagine most secular AA groups have similar ideas about what is inviolable.
I spent twenty-five years in traditional AA. I am a relative newcomer to secular AA, and I don’t claim to have my finger on its pulse, but my personal experience plus the stories I read and the podcasts I listen to convince me that traditional AA and secular AA are different worlds. And these worlds appear to be mutually exclusive. Members of the other world are sometimes tolerated but rarely embraced. When I attend traditional meetings and share my story, I’m often met with suspicion, fear, and even hostility. And unfortunately I think traditional AA members have experienced the same negative feedback at my agnostic home group. Online I see secular AAs deriding traditional AAs, and vice versa. I don’t think this bodes well for AA’s future, but to a degree it is understandable. As Paden says, “If the sacred is the foundation of a world, then whatever denies that sacredness will be intolerable” (p. 61).
My examination of AA and religion leads to several questions:
Will traditional AAs and secular AAs continue to live in mutually exclusive worlds?
Will AA continue to be a majority religious fellowship tolerating a secular minority?
Will secular AA develop enough influence to significantly change the fellowship and if so, what changes will be made?
Some newcomers need god-based recovery, while others need secular recovery; can traditional AAs and secular AAs work together to create groups and a fellowship that works for both?
Can AA become a god-neutral or god-optional fellowship?
My final question, to use Paden’s terminology, can we – and will we – create a new AA world?
Dean W went to his first AA meeting around 1980, and has been clean and sober since 1988. He got sober in a very conservative AA environment – lots of Big Book and Twelve and Twelve meetings, along with the Joe and Charley Big Book seminar tapes. For about 25 years he was a traditional, God-oriented AA member; a believer, if only a nominal and often skeptical one. Then, over a period of about five years he had another “spiritual awakening” and became an agnostic. In June 2018 Dean helped start the We Agnostics group in Elkhart, Indiana. This is now his home group, though he occasionally still attends traditional AA meetings. He is something of a jack of all trades – he’s worked as a warehouse foreperson, an autoworker, a tool and die maker, and a college adjunct instructor, among other things. Dean presently works as a high school substitute teacher.