Is AA Religious? The Spiritual Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous

Amanda Stevens

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Amanda Stevens

Alcoholics Anonymous was the original “12-step” program founded on spiritual principles, but it does not require spiritual belief to either join or participate. There are people from the entire spectrum of belief to non-belief involved in AA.

If you can’t tolerate other people’s views or to what power they attribute the success of their recovery, you will likely find AA difficult to experience. However, if you can tolerate what other people believe, the other participants will likely reciprocate tolerance back to you.

Both religious and non-religious people have successfully recovered from their addictions using the 12-step formula.

Key points:

  • Is AA religious? It was originally infused with some spiritual components but it does not have an official religious affiliation.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous is a global, peer-led volunteer organization.
  • The original 12 steps of AA were published in 1938.
  • AA was founded by two alcoholics who achieved sobriety.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous has 12 spiritual traditions.
  • AA is free for anyone to attend.

What Is AA and Is It Religious?

Alcoholics Anonymous is a global, peer-led, volunteer organization whose only membership requirement is the desire to stop drinking.[1]

Most of the 2 million+ worldwide members live in the US and Canada. There are members in over 180 nations, which is impressive considering there are only 195 nations on the planet! There are no creeds, oaths, or attendance requirements. You’re not even required to admit you’re an alcoholic. Your level of participation is completely voluntary.

Alcoholics Anonymous is perhaps most famous for its “12-step program”.  While it’s often the subject of amusement in pop culture, AA is seriously effective. One Stanford researcher evaluated 35 separate studies and determined AA participation was almost always more predictive of long-term abstinence than psychotherapy.[2]

What Are The 12 Steps Of AA?

The twelve steps of AA are intended to be completed in sequential order, but there is no one “right way” to do them. These twelve steps were included in the original book published in 1938[3]:

  1. We are powerless over alcohol, and our lives are now out of our control.
  2. A higher, more significant power than ourselves could restore our sanity.
  3. We must surrender control of our lives to God as we understand Him.
  4. We must search our depths and make a moral inventory of our actions.
  5. Admit to God, ourselves, and another human being what we have done wrong.
  6. We have reached the point where we have no desire to repeat our moral shortcomings.
  7. We humbly ask God to help us reform our character.
  8. Make a list of all the people we’ve harmed and are willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We make direct apologies and amends to the people we’ve wronged whenever possible, except when doing so would cause greater harm than good.
  10. Continued to self-reflect and admit any new harm or pain we’ve caused others.
  11. Through consistent prayer, we have strengthened our relationship with God.
  12. Having had a spiritual encounter with God, we try to bring this message to other alcoholics and practice what we preach.

The History of AA

Bill Wilson

In 1934, Bill Wilson was a stock speculator who had been committed to the Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions of New York City four separate times. He had failed to graduate from law school and ruined his business career because of his excessive drinking habits.

During his final commitment to the hospital, he experienced painful withdrawal symptoms of alcohol poisoning, which included delirium tremens symptoms. During this time, he had a uniquely spiritual experience and remained sober for the rest of his life.[4]

After this experience, he joined the evangelical “Oxford Group,” whose leader proclaimed the only solution to fear and suffering was to surrender your life to God.[5]

During a miserable business trip to Akron, where he almost relapsed, Bill Wilson decided he could only stay sober if he was trying to help another alcoholic. He dialed numbers until he secured an introduction to Dr. Bob Smith, another “Oxford Group” member.

Dr. Bob Smith

Bob Smith was an Akron surgeon who had been a heavy drinker for over 19 years since he established his medical practice in 1915.

He had attended a lecture by the founder of the Oxford Group in 1933. He failed to get sober until he was contacted in 1934 by Bill Wilson, who explained to him a rudimentary version of what would become the “12-step program”.

It was impressed upon Bob Smith that he needed to surrender his life to God to achieve sobriety.

Co-Founding AA

Bill Wilson returned to New York, and Bob Smith stayed in Akron. They began working with alcoholics in their respective cities, and by 1938, they co-published the book “Alcoholics Anonymous.” This contained the now famous set of principles called the “Twelve Traditions.”

The Spiritual Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous

Since AA remains spiritual but non-denominational, there are not guiding organizational “principles” but rather guiding organizational “traditions.”

Since AA members come from all shades of belief to non-belief, these traditions address how to conduct relationships between the members, groups, the global organization, and society at large. The most foundational tradition is anonymity, but there are 12 total[6]:

  1. We before me; the group comes first.
  2. God is our ultimate authority, and we are only his humble servants.
  3. The only requirement to join is to express a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group is autonomous except in organization-wide matters.
  5. The purpose of AA is to help suffering alcoholics.
  6. AA doesn’t get involved in any other organization’s business.
  7. No outside contributions.
  8. AA should always be peer-led.
  9. AA should always be organized horizontally rather than vertically.
  10. No politics, ever.
  11. We attract rather than promote.
  12. Discreet anonymity is one of the core spiritual principles of Alcoholics Anonymous

Frequently Asked Questions about AA

Are AA Meetings Free?

AA meetings have always been and will always be free. Not accepting outside contributions is part of AA’s twelve traditions. Money usually comes with strings attached, and AA never wants outside organizations to influence the mission of AA: Helping suffering alcoholics.

Members can voluntarily donate money, which will help fund their local AA organization. The regional and global AA organizations make money from literature sales, conference items, and donations from local groups.

How Do AA Meetings Work?

AA meetings are peer-led and completely voluntary. In the popular imagination, people almost always face each other in a circle, introducing themselves as, “My name is X, and I’m an alcoholic.” In real life, AA meetings occur in circles, semicircles, rows of seats facing a podium, or even just around a plain old table.

Members take a turn reading from group literature and introducing themselves to each other. Members can voluntarily introduce themselves through the formulaic, “My name is X, and I’m an alcoholic.” This is not mandatory and is entirely optional.

Members offer each other encouragement and helpful tips to refrain from drinking.

Why Isn’t AA For Everyone?

Not everyone will benefit from AA meetings. AA has no creed or specific doctrines, but it is explicitly spiritual. “God” is not defined as belonging to any particular religion, but the existence of God is unquestioned.

AA’s co-founder, Bill Wilson, had a unique spiritual experience that helped him achieve sobriety. The final step in AA literature is to undergo a spiritual awakening by completing the prior 11 steps. The existence of God is vital for this spiritual awakening.

For those who aren’t tolerant of the belief systems of others, AA will be very difficult. If you cannot stand to be in the presence of faithful, professing people, do not attend an AA meeting. But, if you can be respectful of others’ beliefs, they will be respectful of yours.

Sources


[1] Frequently asked questions. Frequently Asked Questions | Alcoholics Anonymous – Great Britain. (n.d.). https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/professionals/frequently-asked-question

[2] News Center. (2020, March 11). Alcoholics anonymous most effective path to alcohol abstinence. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/03/alcoholics-anonymous-most-effective-path-to-alcohol-abstinence.html

[3] The twelve steps. Alcoholics Anonymous. (n.d.-a). https://www.aa.org/the-twelve-steps

[4] New York : Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (1984, January 1). “Pass it on” : The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world : Alcoholics anonymous. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/passitonstoryofb00alco/mode/2up

[5] Belden, D. C. (1976, January 1). The origins and development of the Oxford Group (moral re-armament). ORA. https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:af3e69ed-81c2-493f-a6bf-d05cfdec6c48

[6] The twelve traditions. Alcoholics Anonymous. (n.d.). https://www.aa.org/the-twelve-traditions

About the Author

Amanda Stevens is a highly respected figure in the field of medical content writing, with a specific focus on eating.

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