Spiritual, Rather Than Religious (edited version 2017)

By Steve K.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) quite often state that the Twelve-Step program is “Spiritual, rather than religious”.  I think this distinction is based upon one’s definition of the two terms. Some people understand the terms as more or less synonymous, but within AA, they are generally understood to mean different things.

The term ‘religious’, as understood within AA, is considered to mean being formally part of an organised religion, or connected to an institution such as the church. It is associated with being dogmatic and doctrinal. The term ‘spirituality’, within AA, is generally considered to be non-dogmatic and open, with members encouraged to develop their own understanding and practice.  Under these definitions, AA is genuinely “spiritual, rather than religious.”

However, there are different definitions of the two terms, with some being quite broad in understanding and overlapping is common. Historically, the AA program has no doubt been strongly influenced by Christianity, and under a broad definition, can be validly described as religious in nature. In fact, this view has been legally judged to be the case in several United States court decisions on the issue.

AA’s distinction between the spiritual and religious seems to reflect this tendency within modern day secular society, which views the spiritual as relating to the individual’s private inner experience of the transcendent, or divine, and does not have to be associated with any particular belief system.

As a matter of interest, the well known psychologist and philosopher William James, who greatly influenced Bill Wilson and the spirituality of the AA program, defined religion over a century ago as:

 “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

‘The Varieties of Religious Experience, p.21, Penguin Classics 1982.’

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Most members of AA would now consider the above as a definition of spirituality, rather than religion; which demonstrates the modern tendency to distinguish this broad description of religion as ‘spiritual’, and the theologies, doctrines, institutions and traditions associated with it as ‘religious’.

The founders of AA were also influenced by the liberal, humanistic ideas of American society. These ideas were born of the “age of enlightenment” and produced principles such as: autonomy, democracy, equality, tolerance of diversity, freedom of the individual, freedom of belief, opinion and speech, as well as, the welfare of the whole or group. These are the fundamental principles of the AA fellowship, and are embedded throughout the ‘Twelve Traditions’. The separation of the subjective, inner experience of spirituality, from the dogmatic authority of organised religion, is also the result of liberal and humanistic values upon modern day secular society, of which AA is very much a part. 

Spiritual Resources

The following passage from the book, ‘The Alternative 12 Steps – A Secular Guide to Recovery’, by Martha Cleveland, Ph.D. and Arlys G, offers a good account of how we can relate to the many spiritual resources available to us:

“Lots of us confuse spirituality and religion. The words are often used interchangeably and we must realize that they shouldn’t be, for they have different meanings. To call religion spiritual is true, but religion is only one source of spiritual power. There are many, many others.

The word spirit comes from a Latin word that means breath, life, vigor. We call something spiritual when it represents life or when it enhances life.

There are people who center their spirituality on religious practices and principles. There are others who find spiritual connections with things totally outside of any religious framework. As far as spirituality is concerned, to believe in a God or not to believe in a God doesn’t matter. What matters is to have faith in our spiritual self – in other words, to have faith in the energy that gives us life.

The phrase “spiritual resources” can be interpreted in many ways. Does it have to mean something great and mystical? Probably not. Does it mean there are a certain number of clearly defined sources of power that we can tap into? No. There are many sources of spiritual power, more than any of us will ever be aware of or be able to use.

Spiritual power comes from whatever gives us peace, hope or strength and enhances our humanity.”

In The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G. show how the 12-Step program can be interpreted and worked by those who simply do not believe in an interventionist deity. At the same time the authors conscientiously maintain the intention and integrity of the program – its values, scope and depth. A chapter is devoted to each Step. The language is clear, engaging and personal.

The Foreword to this Second Edition of the book begins with a striking quote from Chapter Three which captures the essence of both the book and the 12 Steps: “We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance.”

This is a unique, inspiring and helpful book for anyone – regardless of belief or lack of belief – who would like to work the 12 Step program.

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