Non-Religious Identities and AA Participation

By Zach Munro

The emergence of an organized network of secular AA groups has coincided with a recent turn in the sociology of religion into an increasing interest into a sociology of non-religion. The increasing demographic of “religious nones” in both Canada and the United States,[1] as well as theoretical interventions that have reconceptualized existing understandings of secularization theory,[2] has turned researchers’ attention to the characteristics of the non-religious. Though it may seem counter-intuitive to consider a lack of religiosity to be a meaningful component to one’s daily living – to those showing up to AA it frequently seems to be a meaningful matter.

The turn to the non-religious in sociological research has included a critical examination of how the non-religious have been included and/or excluded by researchers studying the intersections of religion and health. A noted criticism within addictions research has been an underlying assumption that all persons have some interest in or are at least neutral towards constructs of religion and spirituality.[3] Some scholars have asserted the inclusion of “secular spirituality”[4] in health research while others have criticized such research on spirituality due to an increasing vagueness and lack of definitional boundaries that render the construct virtually useless in social science research.[5]

The existing research into how the non-religious interact with AA’s therapeutic mechanisms – traditionally defined predominantly in spiritual and/or religious terms – are noticeably lacking. This is, in part, due to the underlying assumption that being non-religious is characterized by a mere lack of religion instead of meaningful difference from it. Though the category of “religious nones” is often treated as a homogenous category in social research it ignores the diverse forms of non-religion that come to characterize differences within the grouping and ignores how differences may inform participation and utilization of AA’s therapeutic mechanisms. Scholars identify and suggest that therapeutic mechanisms such as those found in the 12 Steps, the integration into new positive social networks, the benefits of sponsorship, and the group therapy dynamics of meetings are analogous to mechanisms used in formal professional treatment. [6] The problem the non-religious are confronted with is the religious elements that come intertwined with these therapeutic mechanisms.

God is referenced in some form or another in 6 of the 12 Steps and group dynamics often define how spirituality and/or religiosity come to structure social dynamics within groups. The positive social network supports are not always positive if a group, individuals within, or a sponsor, work to support the newcomer by encouraging belief in God, or framing recovery as only achievable through belief in God – invalidating a non-religious identity or even framing it as an impediment to recovery. The commonality of Christian prayer in meetings manufactures visible out-grouping for those who choose not to participate or pressure a performance of false identification that is in-authentic to the individual. Treating the matters as trivial risks alienating individuals not just from a group but from AA as a whole. The assumption that the “social supports” are always positive ignores the experiences of many.

As researchers in the addictions field argue for the utility of AA, they simultaneously recognize the challenges of its accessibility due to its spiritual and religious contents.[7] This is true for those identifying as non-religious as well as those with non-Christian backgrounds and non-Christian religious identities. For such reasons, the notion of translation has gained currency amongst researchers in order to aid in greater accessibility. Yet empirical research to this point as to how the non-religious, as well as non-Christian, work to translate AA’s content into accessible and meaningful supports is virtually non-existent. The empirical location of secular AA is of interest not just to those interested in the sociology of non-religion but to researchers looking to gain a greater understanding of this grouping in the context of AA interactions. The diversity of identities and worldviews within the grouping may inform differences in participation and utilization of AA’s therapeutic mechanisms.

Last August a survey was posted on AA Agnostica and sent via the Sunday newsletter and it remained online until January. The data collected is intended as exploratory and recognizably has a variety of limitations and biases. It is merely a starting point to begin developing a more comprehensive recognition and understanding of differences in non-religious identities and if such differences manifest to inform differences in participation and utilizations of AA’s mechanisms of support. The data collected has only recently been transferred and begun more sophisticated analysis, and findings frequently take long to publication, but some quick descriptive statistics may be of interest to readers here and as a thank you to those who took time to fill out the survey.

The sample ended with 837 respondents. It was predominantly non-religious members that filled out the survey, but it also included religious respondents as well. There were various non-religious identities written-in that are challenging to categorize (e.g. when a respondent writes in “atheist/agnostic” – which group should they be included in?). For the purposes of data shared here, religious respondents and singular identities that are difficult to categorize (or identities that have an unclear meaning) were removed leaving a sample size of 712. A breakdown percentage of non-religious identities that filled out the survey are as follows:

Of the 6 primary non-religious identification categories atheists make up the largest grouping but are not a majority of the sample. The noticeable size of those identifying as spiritual with no religion grouping may lend enough credence to hypothesize many spiritual individuals have found traditional AA’s form of spirituality too restrictive, too Christian, or crossing various boundaries into the religious. As noted earlier, spirituality as a construct is frequently privatized, varying in content, and even contradicting in its logics across (and even within) individuals. Secular AA opens space for more diverse forms, as well as creativity with, different spiritual sensibilities in addition to its freedom to reject it all together.

There are those that assert a definitional understanding of ‘secular’ to be a complete absence of religion and include spirituality as an inherent component of religion. Amongst scholars of secular studies, there is no consensus on what constitutes ‘secular.’ Some assert strong definitional boundaries that entail a “hard secularism” which entails a complete removal of religion while others assert an “open secularism” in which no religion, spirituality, or non-religion is privileged over another. Self-evidently this tension does and will continue to manifest in secular AA over definitional boundaries and what characterizes the distinguishing difference of a secular meeting or group from a traditional one; aspects that go beyond the mere removal of the word “God”.

Despite the majority of the sample identified as either atheists or spiritual with no religion there is still more than a third of the sample claiming a different identification. Looking at differences across these groups, I have included a few simple cross-tabulation statistics. Looking at the broad inquiry into how the non-religious interact with aspects of AA that have religious and/or spiritual connotations to them, a few results are shared below.

Question: How helpful has having a Higher Power been to your recovery?

Question: How helpful have the Twelve-Steps been in your own recovery?

Question: How important has it been for you to have secular interpretation(s) of the Twelve-Steps?

Question: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? I am more likely to attend a secular meeting than I am a traditional AA meeting.

In reading these statistics, they are (as mentioned earlier) clouded by particular limitations and biases but they do provide a starting point for this area of research that is only growing in importance with current trends of secularization and addiction in the general population. It is noticeable that the therapeutic (or spiritually termed for some) mechanisms in the 12 Steps are primarily helpful across groupings and not characterized by high rejection rates. This is most likely inflated by a large factor of bias, but one could also consider that the 41% of the atheist sample are diverse in their approaches in translating or adapting the Steps into new codifications or workings of the Steps and opposition or rejection of them represents only a small portion.

What is likely to be of more interest to health researchers is the trend of importance placed on secular interpretations of the 12 Steps and the availability of secular meetings encouraging greater attendance. As health researchers have routinely emphasized the utilization of AA as a public health resource they have simultaneously been confronted with the challenge of its spiritual/religious components – particularly for those who self-identify as non-religious and for those of non-Christian backgrounds. Making a secular presence in AA more visible and known encourages greater likelihoods of attendance and integration for the non-religious and potentially those of more diverse religious backgrounds.

As this is mere sketching of a few lines of inquiry into the non-religious in AA, the future will hopefully see a greater assessment and appreciation of categories, recognizing differences within populations, and ultimately recognize important components of non-religion that may help inform health researchers into AA’s utility in addiction treatment. Regardless, the organizing faction of secular AA as well as its online presence has galvanized a culture of non-religion that substantiates and respects secularity in diverse forms that are not just of interest to researchers in the fields of addiction or secular studies, but it has widened the gateway to an inclusion of those who were previously challenged to find refuge from the life of active addiction. And that is ultimately the pursuit.

[1] See Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey for Canada or a recent 2019 Pew Forum Study on American’s decline in religious identification.

[2] See Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press & Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age Cambridge, MA: University Press.

[3] See Tonigan, J. Scott, Miller, William. R., and Schermer, Carol. 2002. “Atheists, Agnostics, and Alcoholics Anonymous.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 63(5): 534-541.

[4] See Walach, Harold. 2015. Secular Spirituality: The Next Step Towards Enlightenment, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

[5] See: Speed, David. “What Is Spirituality, Anyway? Is ‘Spirituality’ so Broadly Defined That Testing for It Is Meaningless?”, Skeptic (Altadena, CA) 21.4 (September 22, 2016).

[6] See: Dossett, Wendy. 2017. “A daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” Addiction 112: 942-943 & Kelly, John. 2017. “Is Alcoholics Anonymous religious, spiritual, neither? Findings from 25 years of mechanisms of behavior change research”, Addiction 112: 929– 936.

[7] See Laudet, A. 2003. “Attitudes and Beliefs about 12-Step Groups among Addiction Treatment Clients and Clinicians: Toward Identifying Obstacles to Participation”, Substance Use and Misuse 38(14): 2017–47.

Zach Munro holds a B.A. (Hons.) and an M.A. in Religion & Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University and is currently finishing his PhD in Sociology at the University of Waterloo. His research looks at the substantive characteristics of secularity, its production through religious/secular entanglements, and translation as a mode of secularization. He has situated these theoretical inquiries within the empirical location of Secular AA and the experiences of non-religious individuals within the fellowship. He is currently an assistant editor to the Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network, a team member of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada project titled “Understanding Nonreligion in a Complex Future” and is a course instructor in the department of Sociology & Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo.


8 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    Thanks! Some scientific pundit has opined that if an organism isn’t evolving it’s going extinct. AA must change and get away from a very dangerous mindset of “Thus saith the Lord God”. All of that is still very “selfish, self-centered and grandiose.” I have been to meetings were I was told “no science”, yet they will allow god-shouting all of the time.

    I also, coming from a strong Baptist/Fundamentalist background (that ended once I got sober) can see the clear Christian influences in the BB and other literature of Traditional AA. Had I not found “secular” meetings I do not even know if I would have continued with AA at all. One reason was the amount of god-shouting, another was the sacralization of the BB, then there was the utter hypocrisy of shares and the attendant continuance of issues that were and are violations of another boundaries (13th Steppers, Scofflaws predation another’s emotions and finances, just to name a few). Judgemental? Perhaps, but the Emperors New Clothes story fits what I have experienced quite well.

    A last note, sobriety is for everyone. AA nor any single organization should have a corner on sobriety. One Big Tent is a nice idea. I just hope we can find a way to get there sober.

  2. Larry G. says:

    Thanx Zach, so grateful for your research. Many, many, many in recovery, and indeed society at large are eager for more of the same.

    So very grateful to those in AA that have been fine examples of free thinkers and opened the door for many of us to find meaningful recovery and emotional safety, and quite possibly physical safety in recovery. As Kermit sings “it ain’t easy being green”.

  3. Larry K says:


    Well done my friend. I am looking forward to reading your dissertation once it’s finished.

    Any work that furthers the human understanding of our “frail” condition will, no doubt, save lives.

  4. Dean W says:

    Thank you Zach for this article, and kudos for tackling a very difficult topic. I’ll have to reread the article to digest the statistics in detail but I offer a few general comments.

    My agnosticism is both very meaningful and very relevant to health. I find meaning in humanity, as well as in science, nature, and other things. I need no deity or higher power to give my life meaning. I think this also forces me to accept many things that are unexplainable and which most religious people must find some explanation for. I’d like to have more answers to life’s mysteries too, but I prefer unanswered questions to mythical answers. And I like Sam Harris’ idea that human well-being is a concept that we know enough about to base our ethics on; we don’t need myth and religion to determine right from wrong. Healthy is right, and unhealthy is wrong.

    I was a traditional/religious AA member for about 25 years. I’ve been an agnostic AA member for about 7 years, and sober for the whole 32 years. If god was the thing that made AA work I should be drunk. I’m not only sober, my sobriety is better than ever. So for me, at present the therapeutic mechanism obviously has nothing to do with god. On the other hand, I partially agree with Bill W when he said that the “God idea” works (at least for some). Myth and religion are powerful things. People sacrifice their time, money, and sometimes their lives for these things. I don’t think a literal god ever changed me, but it’s possible the god idea did. At least until it quit working for me.

    Finally, yes, accessibility IS the issue, “ultimately the pursuit.” How can we be most helpful? Please keep up the good work!

  5. John M. says:

    Excellent, thanks for this Zach. There is quite a bit to take away from your study here and I am very much interested in seeing your final dissertation when completed. It’s going to be an important contribution to the field of recovery given its focus on the secular community of AA and for your appreciation for the concept of “translation” as it applies to AA literature and secularity in general.

    I note that the question —“How important has it been for you to have secular interpretation(s) of the Twelve-Steps?” — the two largest percentages, 57.9% and 57.3% respectively, came from atheists and secular humanists who indicated that it was “very helpful” to have secular interpretations available to them.

    Instead of merely dismissing the Twelve-Steps, the demystification (i.e., translation) of them into contemporary secular terms can align alcoholics who feel at home in AA with other more conventional and profane therapeutic options.

    Not everyone may need the “guidance” of a twelve step structure, or perhaps any formal structure, but for those who do, it seems that the question above confirms that those who identify as atheists and secular humanists feel more than comfortable with translating (rather than rejecting) the Twelve-Steps into concepts that are meaningful to them.

  6. Terrific information. It really explains the stark difference in nonbelievers and our tendencies. In a question like, “Would you be more inclined to go to a secular meeting,” a large number say “Yes” but plenty have a different view; 11% of Apatheists strongly disagree. All of these questions – and the answers – flush out the varieties of AA. Thanks, Zack.

  7. Pat Y says:

    Thank You, Zach! A very interesting read and I look forward to hearing what conclusions you are able to ‘divine’ from this data. I agree that one of the biggest problem with secular forms of AA is simply a lack of awareness by people wanting/needing help but not wanting the perceived religiosity that comes with AA. It seems most people are completely unaware that the ‘magic’ of AA lies not in the god or the supernatural but rather in healthy group dynamics and behavioral changes that appear to be an effective treatment for alcoholism and addiction. Anything that increases awareness of this (particularly in the professional/academic worlds) is, to this alcoholic, a worthwhile pursuit.

  8. Lance B. says:

    Your article, Zach, reminds me that I’ve had a recurring internal argument about my own “spirituality”. Sometimes I reject the idea, but most often I have come to say I’m just as spiritual as you religious people. I have feelings just like you do, but I don’t have any about a supernatural being.

    The sorting of atheists into several groupings for me caused problems. I certainly think I’m a humanist, but I’m also an atheist and an agnostic. I had the good fortune to meet the president of the NY Humanist Society at a meeting of 3 a few years ago. She convinced me that the label “humanist” is less controversial to religious folks and provides a positive belief system vs simply being what Christians often think I am: against religion.

    Those Christians happen to be correct in my case since I am convinced that belief in supernatural beings has become less than valuable for society at large while many otherwise uncreative people do find value for themselves and society in the beliefs and routines of religions.

    Today I wonder if I may have been getting it backwards all along. Perhaps I’m the creative and moral thinker and religion is necessary for people less imaginative. AA has tended to label me incorrectly suggesting I just can’t give up my own biases while the problem is exactly the opposite.

    In any case, your analysis has shaken loose some new approaches to my problem with who I am and how I wish others to see me. Thank you.

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