by Chaz Bufe, author Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) routinely assert that AA is “spiritual, not religious,” though even a cursory glance at AA’s practices and official (“conference approved”) publications reveals the opposite to be true.
As for AA’s practices, most meetings open with a prayer to God, the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Most meetings also feature reading (and often discussion) of the 12 steps, with their exhortations to pray and to turn one’s life and will over to God. And most AA meetings close with the reading of a specifically Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer.
AA’s 12 steps, the backbone of its “program,” are even more revealing. It’s noteworthy that alcohol is mentioned only in the first step, which strongly implies that alcoholics cannot overcome their problems on their own. The remainder of the steps implore alcohol abusers to engage in religious activities (prayer, confession) and to “turn [their] lives and [their] wills over to the care of God.”
Here are the steps, directly from AA’s “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. 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.
Much of the rest of the “Big Book” is just as religious, if not more so. In his comments immediately preceding the 12 steps, Bill Wilson exhorts the reader: “Remember that we deal with alcohol–cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power–that one is God May you find Him now!” (p. 58) Wilson also devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 4: “We Agnostics”) to attacking atheists and agnostics as “prejudice[d]” or crazy, and to presenting belief in God as the only way to restore “sanity.” Wilson also recommends that AA members “work” the seventh step through prayer, and even provides the wording for a prayer to “My Creator.” (p. 76) It’s also worth noting that the “Big Book” is saturated with religious terms. There are well over 200 references to God, capitalized masculine pronouns that refer to God (“He,” “Him”), or synonyms for God (“Creator,” “Father,” etc.) in its 164 pages of text–and this doesn’t even take into account such terms in the personal stories that make up the bulk of the book.
AA’s second–and second most important–book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, also written by Wilson, is just as religious as the “Big Book.” For instance, the nine pages devoted to “working” step 2 contain at least 30 references to God, synonyms for it, or capitalized masculine pronouns referring to it. Wilson also repeatedly exhorts the reader to pray, noting in one place that “Those of us who have come to make regular use of prayer would no more do without it than we would refuse air, food, or sunshine.” (p. 97) And in his discussion of step 4, making “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” Wilson makes a truly extraordinary recommendation: that the list of one’s “moral defects” be based on “a universally recognized list of major human failings–the Seven Deadly Sins [!] of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.” (p. 48) Contrary to Wilson’s assertion, these are not “a universally recognized list of major human failings”; rather, they are a specifically Christian list of sins enumerated by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century. (Even ignoring its origin, one wonders why this “universally recognized list” would omit such obvious “defects” as cruelty, hypocrisy, intrusiveness, exploitation of others, and sanctimoniousness.) That Wilson would make such an extraordinary recommendation underlines the Christian origins and orientation of AA and its “program.”
Indeed, the religious nature of AA and its “program” is so obvious that three federal courts of appeal (the 2nd, 7th, and 9th circuit courts–the next level down from the Supreme Court), two state supreme courts (Tennessee and New York), and nine federal district courts have ruled that government-coerced attendance at AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous–a clone of AA) is unconstitutional in that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because AA is religious in nature. (There have been no contrary rulings on the appeal level, but unfortunately there is no national binding precedent because the Supreme Court has refused to hear appeals of any of these rulings. Without this binding precedent, government-coerced AA and NA attendance continues on a piecemeal basis across the country.)
Given all this, it seems amazing that AA members routinely and vehemently assert that AA is “spiritual, not religious.” There are two primary reasons that they do this. The first is that AA is a very anti-intellectual organization, in which honest questions and skeptical attitudes are viewed as “disease symptoms,” and in which great emphasis is placed upon unquestioning acceptance of revealed wisdom. Three of the most common AA slogans embody this anti-intellectual attitude: “Utilize, don’t analyze,” “Let go and let God,” and “Your best thinking got you here.” So, in a milieu which demands blind acceptance and denigrates critical thought, AA members hear that AA is “spiritual, not religious” and repeat it like parrots (which is unfair to parrots, who are intelligent, sentient creatures).
AA members who own treatment facilities or work in them have an additional incentive to repeat the “spiritual, not religious” assertion: money. In 1990, over 93 percent of treatment facilities in the United States were 12-step facilities, and treatment was a $10-billion-a-year industry. Probably even more money is at stake today. If 12-steppers who own or work in treatment facilities would honestly admit that their approach is religious in nature, that river of government and insurance-industry cash would dry up in short order.
Ultimately, one must ask that if a program based on faith in God and on prayer to “Him” isn’t religious, what is?
One might also ask what’s spiritual about encouraging blind acceptance? What’s spiritual about discouraging critical thinking? What’s spiritual about disparaging those who ask honest questions? What’s spiritual about encouraging people to identify with destructive past behaviors? What’s spiritual about telling people that they’re “diseased” for life? “What’s spiritual about telling people that they’re “powerless” to solve their own problems? What’s “spiritual” about inculcating dependency? What’s spiritual about issuing destructive, self-fulfilling prophecies? What’s spiritual about telling vulnerable people that their only alternatives to AA are “jails, institutions, or death”?
These are things religions do. Blind acceptance? Check. Discouragement of critical thinking? Check. Ostracism of doubters (“heretics”)? Check. Identification of self with sins (past behaviors)? Check. Diseased (“sinful”) members? Check. Powerlessness? Check. Dependence on an institution for salvation? Check. Fear-mongering about an inevitable downward spiral if one abandons the institution and its teachings? Check.
AA is religious. Not spiritual.
It’s time for some honesty. It’s time for AA to admit it.
- Alcoholics Anonymous does more Harm than Good
- Alcoholics Anonymous is not Effective
- Alternatives to AA — and Why They’re Needed
- Alcoholics Anonymous is Religious, not Spiritual (part 1)
- Why is Alcoholics Anonymous Sacroscanct?