Is AA Religious?

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One of the strongest criticisms of Alcoholics Anonymous is that they are too steeped in tradition and outmoded values. The focus on spirituality and material created more than 75 years ago seems to support this idea, and the references to God and a “higher power” do sound religious to the modern ear.

Why AA seems religious

There are two places we typically bare our souls and seek a kind of life-changing epiphany. One of those is in formal treatment under a psychiatrist’s care. The other is church. Besides this aspect of spiritual awakening, there are other parallels on offer:

  • AA runs on donations.
  • Groups form and use the same text. Some even revere it as life-saving and life-altering – akin to holy scriptures.
  • AA asks its members to bring the message of sobriety to others. To some, this sounds suspiciously like evangelical outreach and the Biblical “good news of salvation.”
  • AA meets regularly and members share testimonies about their successes and failures in the program.
  • At meetings, there is an air of respectful solemnity – the kind of thoughtful and quiet intensity that allows for self-reflection and introspection.
  • Some groups pray and there is even a standard prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Members are often asked to read, verbatim, from the “holy” book.
  • Similar to Sunday School, passages from the Big Book are often presented and then discussed in length.
  • Meetings are often held in church buildings, although in a side room, not the nave or other areas where worship happens.

Where AA differs

The primary element missing in Alcoholics Anonymous, and one that critically separates it from a religion, is the lack of a call to worship. Members pray to a higher power and even rely on spiritual intervention, but they do not honor or worship a particular deity.

Following this pattern, people of all faiths are welcome at meetings. Even those with no religious beliefs at all are encouraged to come. There is a chapter in the Big Book, called “We Agnostics,” written to members without a formal religion and who desire sobriety. Any alcoholic seeking sobriety is welcome.

The idea that followers of all belief systems (or no belief system at all) are welcome and not required to change their beliefs stands in direct contrast to how organized religions operate. There is no conversion to a set system. When spiritual matters are addressed, they come without identifying any particular tradition. Jesus isn’t mentioned. Neither are Mohammed, the Holy Spirit, Allah or any of a number of other deities you find around the world.

There is also no recognition of sinning against God. Shame and guilt do arise, but they are used as motivators for change instead of some eternal state of mankind that requires divine intervention and forgiveness. Our guilt is assuaged by realistically looking at the situation, taking action to change our behaviors and attitudes, and then seeking forgiveness, not from God, but from other people we have wronged.

Sometimes, a member will express their own beliefs and frame their sobriety in terms of their religious tradition. This is fine. AA doesn’t demand religious conviction, but also doesn’t require members to abandon their existing beliefs. Tolerance is very much a part of the set up. Why? Because intolerance can lead to drinking.

The bottom line

How does AA avoid becoming a religious affair? Simple: AA focuses on one primary goal – sobriety. Anything else can be a distraction from this goal.

Drunks love to get together and argue. Politics, sports, taxes, whatever. In AA, we know enough to nip this in the bud. Members speak one at a time, without interruption and without judgment from the group. The purpose is to help each other follow a simple, clear path toward sobriety. That’s it.

Religious matters are not forbidden, but neither are they required. Some recommend that sponsors (personal mentors who help individuals with the steps) be paired by sex and religion. This is meant to quickly establish good communication, not as a way to promote religion.

Because all faiths and all levels of devoutness are welcomed, we might say that AA isn’t religious, but you are welcome to bring your religion with you when you come. The alcohol addiction doesn’t care what religion you are, why should sobriety?

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