By Steve K.
It is quite often stated by members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that the fellowship is “spiritual, not religious.” I do not think that this statement is entirely accurate and would suggest that in a broad sense it can be validly described as both. It can certainly be related to in this way by individual members if they are inclined to do so.
AA philosophy, its literature and program of recovery, are strongly influenced by Christian principles and ideas that were inherited from the evangelical Oxford Group. Bill W. and other founder members of AA first got sober through this Christian organisation and practised its tenets. They then later split from the Oxford Group to form their own meetings that were specifically for alcoholics. Bill W. in consultation with the other early members of AA, developed Oxford Group principles and beliefs into the Twelve Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
AA’s program and ‘traditions’ were also influenced by other disciplines and ideas. The early ‘medical model of alcoholism’, liberal democratic principles, and the pragmatic philosophy of William James (Father of American psychology), are just some examples of the various influences upon the AA Fellowship and Program.
However, It only requires a brief look at AA’s basic text to establish the strong influence of Christian ideas, and the word God, or references to it, is mentioned literally hundreds of times throughout the book Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book).
Although it is stated in the Steps and elsewhere in the text, that it can be a God of one’s own understanding, there is a strong suggestion of its Christian characteristics eg., “He”, “All Powerful”, “All Knowing” and can intervene in one’s life. Prayer is also often suggested, and the Christian concept of ‘salvation’, or being saved by God, is fundamental to the Twelve Steps.
It is true to say that AA is not connected to Christianity, or any other religious organisation in a formal way, and is independent from any such institution. However, this does not mean that the Fellowship in its own right is not broadly religious in nature. Several American court decisions(1) have decided, having studied the literature and AA practices, that the fellowship is religious in nature.
Having stated the above, AA’s liberal and pragmatic principles allow its members to relate to the literature and Twelve Steps in a subjective and individual way; which can include natural, and humanistic ideas and values. Spirituality can be understood in a natural sense, in terms of phenomena such as love, morality, beauty, human consciousness, our sense of awe and wonder towards the mystery of existence and the ineffable; things that are more than purely material.
It can also include belief in the literal spirituality associated with religion; such as belief in supernatural beings, spirits, souls and the afterlife. My relationship with AA‘s program of recovery is primarily in terms of the former, natural understanding of spirituality.
Considering myself to be a humanist and agnostic, why am I a member of a broadly religious fellowship? The answer is several reasons. Firstly, it helped me to stop drinking and live a sober way of life and continues to do so. Secondly, there are aspects of AA philosophy and values that I share with so called more religious members: such as, a commitment to sobriety, practising moral inventory and virtue as part of my recovery, lifestyle, or way of being, and a desire to be of service to others; particularly the still suffering alcoholic.
I very much value the opportunity to give and receive support and help that the Fellowship of AA provides to its members. AA’s philosophy inspires this type of reciprocal altruism giving its fellowship a special quality and atmosphere, which is characterised by an attitude of love and service. For me, God is a metaphor for good or love within humanity, and it’s this healing force that works within the Fellowship of AA, through its members.
So, it is these practices and values, my relationship in a natural sense with spirituality, that I share with other members of AA; not necessarily their more religious or literal beliefs in terms of the Twelve Steps or AA philosophy. My point being, there is plenty in a religious fellowship for the non-believer, as well as those who adopt a more literal, supernatural understanding of spirituality.
As suggested in the first paragraph of this essay, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Fellowship and Program, can certainly be related to in a religious manner by its members. An example being the so called “back to basics” movement within the Fellowship, who interpret the Big Book in a very literal way, and whose focus tends towards God and the Christian ideas in the literature. There is a variety in this type of approach towards the Big Book and Twelve Steps, by different groups and members, but all share a literal and fundamentalist style of interpretation, with the aim of recreating very early AA or Oxford Group principles.
However, AA literature, the Twelve Steps and in particular the Twelve Traditions, contain many liberal principles and suggestions in terms of relating to the Big Book and the program of recovery. Three very important sentences for me in this respect are on p.47, 3rd edition of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’:
“When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.”
AA members are allowed to relate to the Twelve Steps and literature in a way that resonates with them. The result of this liberal freedom within AA philosophy is a diversity in terms of belief and practice by its members. There exists in AA a spectrum of belief and interpretations, from the strong atheist non-believer, to the fundamentalist Christian and everything else in between.
The AA fellowship and program of recovery can be legitimately described as broadly religious and also spiritual in nature, in my opinion, but its liberal principles and suggestions allow its individual members to relate to it in a non-religious, humanistic sense if they so wish.
Some readers may take issue with my natural interpretation and use of the word spiritual. I think there are very valid arguments for not using the term in this respect, and that a more specific use of language would be a better communication of my naturalistic understanding of recovery principles and experiences.
However, there is the point of view that the scientific, breaking down of everything to its component parts, is too reductionist and doesn’t fully convey the greater sum of those parts. Certain aspects of human experience are difficult to put into words, and seem greater than there component parts, and vague words like spirituality are an attempt to communicate this greater quality.
I do think that due to its various meanings and associations the term spiritual can be misleading, and a better umbrella word for the principles and experiences of a natural understanding of recovery maybe warranted. I don’t know what that word should be, and so for the foreseeable future may still be tempted, at times, to use the word spiritual in an attempt to communicate the ineffable quality of certain aspects of human experience; that do seem more than purely material.
1.The Courts, AA and Religion. (Detailed article about US court decisions, available to read via the link at AA Agnostica)