Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Religion?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was established in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, American men who were significantly influenced by a Christian organization called the Oxford Group. Central to AA are the well-known Twelve Steps, which stress belief in, and dependence on “God” or a “Higher Power” in achieving recovery. Yet since its inception, AA has presented itself as a “spiritual” rather than a “religious” program. The most common reason given is that while AA endorses belief in “God,” it is one “of your own understanding.”

With the publication of its basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, in 1939, the AA message quickly spread across the globe, eventually giving life to a variety of Twelve Step groups. The Twelve Steps are arguably the most well-known and widespread program of recovery from the disease of alcoholism (a widely-held concept it helped to normalize) in the world today.

AA has recently received a wave of criticisms which, in different ways, target what have been perceived to be its religious components. Some have argued that AA lacks scientific credibility and offers a treatment for alcoholism that is thoroughly “irrational.” The claim is that evidence-based research has proven that AA “doesn’t work,” or at least, isn’t as effective as other treatments. Then there are those within the AA community who have grown fed up with what they view as its residual protestant Christian undertones. In the past few years a number of court cases in Canada have been brought against AA charging the organization with discrimination on the basis of excluding secular or atheist groups in a variety of ways.

The trouble with defining “religion”

AA is a fascinating case study for thinking about how definitions of “religion” change over time. In an article for The Conversation earlier this year I suggested that “spirituality” is generally used to describe a liberal religiosity, which stresses individual autonomy and choice, while “religion” is often used to describe a more conservative religiosity, which stresses conformity to a collective norm. Thus if one is a liberal, “religion” has a negative connotation, while conservatives claim it with pride.

Interestingly, it’s possible that AA pioneered this rhetorical strategy. In the 1930s, AA was a quite liberal organization, seeking to distinguish itself from conservative religious traditions. It did this by invoking the rhetorical distinction between “spirituality” and “religion.” Indeed, scholar Robert Fuller has argued that the phrase “spiritual but not religious” was coined by AA.

Over time Western societies have liberalized, leaving AA to the right of present cultural norms. The “God of your own understanding” sounded so liberal in the 1930s whereas now, mention of the word “God”—regardless of the qualifiers that follow—reeks to secular liberals of a dogmatic conservatism.

To show how definitions of “religion” and “spirituality” are used rhetorically we need only consider how AA Toronto Intergroup, when charged with discrimination on the basis of creed back in 2014, defended itself by invoking section 18 of the Human Rights code, which allows a religious group to restrict participation to the faithful. So while AA presents itself to the public as a “spiritual” program, distinguishing itself from “religious” groups, it nevertheless claimed “religious” legal status in order to protect itself.

Although the definition of “religion” is generally assumed in common parlance, it is not in any sense easy to pin down analytically. This is something religion scholars have long recognized. Indeed, in A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Routledge, 2014) Craig Martin makes clear that “religion” is not a thing out in the world, but rather is produced in our collective imaginations.

My aim is not to take a position on whether or not AA is a religion. Clearly, definitions of “religion” and “spirituality” change over time, and are employed for different social and political reasons. AA members who left a religious tradition but found a home in AA have their own reasons for calling AA a “spiritual” program, as do members whose secular humanism leads them to equate all “God” talk with “religion.” My aim is simply to make these assertions less self-evident.

AA is not like every other treatment

What we can be sure of, however, is that the Twelve Steps are not like every other modern treatment for addiction, which means that attempts to criticize the efficacy of AA on the basis of its scientific credibility, or its degree of rationality (not to mention attempts to defend it on these bases) reflect a grave misunderstanding.

While AA presents itself to the public as a mere program of recovery from alcoholism, it’s actually best thought of as a particular moral community, offering a comprehensive conception of how one ought to live one’s life (what Alcoholics Anonymous calls a “design for living”). This is often lost on commentators. While scientists and journalists assess AA by the standards of the medical community (i.e. percentage of individuals who remain sober), AA members assess one another according to quite different metrics: levels of honesty, compassion, open-mindedness, and magnanimity.

Although AA was instrumental in shifting the discourse about alcoholism from one of “sin” to “sickness” it nevertheless retained a focus on character. To AA, “alcoholism” isn’t understood in purely medical terms, it has a deeply moral dimension to it. It’s for this reason that AA members continue to return years after getting sober; for these people AA is ultimately about living a certain kind of life, and stopping drinking was merely the prerequisite for doing so. Put another way, for AA members not drinking is symbolic of a foundational commitment to be a different kind of person than one was while addicted.

This is why, for those simply interested in quitting or controlling their drinking AA can seem like a needlessly strenuous and strangely coercive treatment program. For these individuals (of which there are many) AA surreptitiously presents itself as a program to help one with their drinking, when, in actual fact, it’s offering a moralistic program that holds implications for much more than simply what one chooses to consume.

Cultural disenchantment and the quest for meaning

How then should we make sense of this program of recovery? I think it’s helpful to consider the wider social and cultural changes that have taken place over the last century. With the rise of secular liberalism and the gradual dissolution of religion from the public sphere, sources of meaning and purpose are less self-evident than they once were. Although in Canada and the U.S. we have the freedom to choose what to believe in, it’s not always clear what we should believe in. Granted, not all experience the West as disenchanted, but experiences of suffering and despair (addiction being one of many) can make a person sense acutely that they lack meaning in their life.

AA members often say that they came to the program to stop drinking, but that they stayed to grow spiritually. Whether we read this as evidence of cultish brainwashing or a symptom of our disenchanted world will depend on our own personal experience of modernity. While AA members describe their program as “spiritual” in order to distinguish it from conservative religiosity, it’s clear they don’t value the program simply for its scientific credibility. AA provides members with a framework of meaning that they clearly hold as sacred. Whether or not we call this “religion” is highly dependent upon where we stand on the political spectrum, as well as our own personal experiences of religious organizations.

It’s likely that if the West continues to liberalize AA will increasingly be painted as a “religious” program, and viewed among liberals as a relic of a bygone era. What this means for its future is too early to tell, but we can be fairly certain that AA will soon find itself confronting the same problems religious traditions today are facing: should they conform to present day cultural standards at the risk of losing their identity, or stand firm in the face of cultural change at the risk of becoming obsolete and irrelevant?