Self photographed figure of the Alcoholics Anonymous, via Wikimedia CommonsOn the heels of my previous post on the subject of substance-abuse treatment not getting the skeptical attention it deserves, I thought I’d address one of the more basic problems with Alcoholics Anonymous as an organization … and that is, its overtly religious nature. That’s right, folks, it’s a religious organization!

Let me say at the outset this about AA: Its members (including a number I’ve spoken to) claim it’s not to a religious organization, and some swear they’ve never been forced to pray or do anything religious. My guess is that some chapters truly do not conduct themselves along religious lines. It’s a decentralized organization, and it’s the nature of such groups to have a lot of variation. So it’s entirely possible that some AA members sincerely find that AA is not, in their experience, religious. If you’re one of them, bully for you. The truth of the matter, however, is that AA’s origins are religious, and its central literature — which is used by all of its chapters everywhere — contains clear religious content and instruction.

One of AA’s co-founders, Bill Wilson (better known in AA circles as “Bill W.”) had been a member of a non-denominational Prohibition-era Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. Though he later left it, many of its principles ended up in AA. Moreover, AA’s other co-founder, Dr Bob Smith (aka “Dr. Bob”), admitted that the early AA had grown out of Bible studies.

So AA’s origins are demonstrably religious.

But much more important for modern members of AA, it’s more than just the group’s genesis which is religious. Its content is, too. Most notably, Chapter 4 of AA’s core instruction book, known simply as “the Big Book” (WebCite cached version), states clearly and unambiguously that God’s existence is a “fact,” that each and every person is basically religious, and that therefore all are obligated to believe in God:

Actually we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself.

We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, by He was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found.

Moreover, several of the “Twelve Steps” (cached) — which are the heart of the organization’s meaning and very existence — openly mention a deity, particularly the following:

  • Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

  • Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

  • Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  • Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

  • Step 7: Humbly asked Him [i.e. God] to remove our shortcomings.

  • Step 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.

Now, a lot of AAers will point to the words “as we understood Him,” attached to some of these references to God, and claim this means members can pick anything and name it “God.” But really, all these words do is make AA non-sectarian (i.e. it doesn’t matter what religion or sect one belongs to), not non-religious. AA’s non-sectarian nature makes sense, since it emerged from a non-sectarian Christian movement (i.e. the Oxford Group). What doesn’t make sense is to suggest that the Big Book or the 12 Steps don’t mandate some sort of religious belief. Of course they do! They can hardly do otherwise, worded as they are!

Again, I realize a lot of AA members will say they’re not religious. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But really, that makes no difference. AA’s core literature … i.e. the Big Book and the 12 Steps … mandate belief in a God (some God, any God) for the member. That makes it a religious organization. Until those mentions of God are excised from the Big Book and the 12 Steps, it will remain a religious organization. Period.

Update: Courtesy of friendthegirl, here are a couple of related links on Stinkin’ Thinkin’:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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4 Responses to “Yes, AA Really Is A Religious Organization”
  1. friendthegirl says:

    I thought you might be interested in a couple of our posts on the religious nature of 12 Step:


    Thank you so much for taking on this subject!


  2. DannyB II says:

    You will not get any argument out of me and shouldn't really get any from folks going to AA. Bill W. and Dr. Bob did in fact use the Bible, Louis chaired many meeting at there house using the Bible, this was before AlAnon.

    I guess what many Americans are doing today such as yourselves here is distancing themselves from organized religion and realizing the ambiguity of Christianity ect…I must tell you that religion has never been a point of contention for me and many others I knew while I went. I went to AA for over 20 years, I left 6 years ago and really stopped going on a regular bases over 12 years ago.

    I really never knew religion was this of a deal until 3 years ago.

    I have read both those links ftg posted by MA and herself and I have read other posts by members there. MA made a excellent observation here in his post: "I don’t argue with the intelligent design crowd, just as I don’t argue the validity of AA with AAs, and for the same reason: it’s pointless and somebody is going to get angry."

    • Rosco says:

      Hey Danny,

      Out of curiosity can you mention why you stopped going to A.A.? I almost have 4 years sober but I stopped going about a year and half ago. I'm just curious why somebody who had 20 years stopped going.


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