Q: In advocating an approach to recovery from alcoholism that is “secular” and “not religious,” are you asserting that A.A. is religious?
A: We know very well that A.A.’s most trusted servants have always insisted that Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization. However, many of us agree with the U.S. Department of Justice which has determined that the A.A. program is inherently religious. It’s important here to understand the distinction between the program and the fellowship. While A.A. does offer 12 steps which are suggested as a program of recovery, A.A. is not, strictly speaking, a program. Rather, “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.” In response to legal concerns about A.A. and religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, federal courts and state courts throughout the U.S. have repeatedly found that traditional 12-step programs contain religious content and advocate religious activities. Legal concerns came up in relation to court-ordered participation in 12-step programs and government funding for treatment programs that are based on the 12 steps. Court findings that the A.A. program is religious were based on careful analyses of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous and other A.A. literature, and on the practices of many A.A. groups.
Q: Regardless of what the courts assert, why do you think A.A. is religious?
A: We agree that A.A. is not a religious organization and that many members of the A.A. fellowship are not religious. However, the program of A.A. as articulated in a portion of Chapter 5 of the Big Book, “How It Works,” is inherently religious according to every court in the U.S. that has ever considered the question. The portion of Chapter 5 that is often read aloud at the beginning of A.A. meetings can make a strong, negative impression on many newcomers, just as it did on many of us. Even though two of the six direct references to God in the reading add the italicized words “as we understood Him,” the God that the A.A. program clearly promotes is a God of a very particular understanding. As stated in our Big Book: “there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now! Half measures availed us nothing.” Apparently, the God of the A.A. program is a monotheistic, omnipotent, anthropomorphic deity who intervenes in individual human lives; and one’s chances of recovery are next to nil unless He is found, according to the Big Book. Of course, many of us with long-term sobriety in A.A. do not pretend to have an understanding of any such god; and we’ve managed to recover from alcoholism in A.A. nonetheless.
Q: Why can’t you just use G.O.D. (Good Orderly Direction, or Group Of Drunks, or Gift Of Desperation), or some other non-religious concept of a Higher Power?
A: Many people in A.A., including many atheist and agnostic members, already do that — despite the fact that none of those acronyms are contained in the Big Book, and are certainly not included in the portion of Chapter Five of the Big Book that is commonly recited aloud at A.A. meetings. Newcomers who are listening carefully to what they hear at A.A. meetings are told repeatedly “That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism…” and “That God could and would if He were sought.” Many atheists and agnostics who have been sober decades longer in A.A. than anyone was in 1939 when those words were first published are convinced through their own experience that those words are not true. At secular A.A. meetings, we simply choose to read other portions of A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature that do not highlight what most reasonable people, including most judges, agree are “inherently religious” concepts.
Q: So what if some people think A.A. is religious? Why should the rest of us in A.A. care about that opinion?
A: If the religiosity evident in many A.A. groups persists and hardens, fewer newcomers will be referred to A.A. and more will be referred elsewhere due to legal concerns about violating their religious freedom rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is already happening in some states. In addition, fewer newcomers will keep coming back to A.A. This, too, is already happening. According to A.A.’s own survey data, membership in A.A. plateaued in the early 1990’s and has not grown since then even though the overall population has grown. Meanwhile other demographic data show that the percentage of young people who characterize their religious affiliation as “none” has gone up dramatically in recent decades to the extent that “none” is currently the largest single category of religious affiliation. If A.A. does not widen its gateway to welcome more atheists, agnostics and others who are non-religious, A.A. growth could continue to stagnate and membership might even shrink. We want the hand of A.A. always to be there.
Q: Can you cite any of the legal opinions in which courts determined that A.A. is religious?
A: Here is a list of court cases provided by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Civil Rights. The parenthetical analyses contained in each of the bullet points came directly from the U.S. Department of Justice and were not added by this website. The term “Establishment Clause” refers to the portion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
–Miner v. Goord, No. 09-0674-cv, 2009 WL 4072085 (2d Cir. Nov. 25, 2009) (holding that the twelve steps of AA are religious in nature).
–Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2007) (holding that AA has substantial religious components and that compelling individuals to participate in AA violates the Establishment Clause).
–Cox v. Miller, 296 F.3d 89 (2d Cir. 2002) (finding that AA’s activities must be treated as religious for purposes of the Establishment Clause).
–DeStafano v. Emergency Hous. Group, Inc., 247 F.3d 397 (2d Cir. 2001) (finding that the AA program is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes).
–Warner v. Orange County Dep’t of Prob., 115 F.3d 1068 (2d Cir. 1997) (concluding that the AA program has substantial religious components and AA meetings are intensely religious events).
–Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 1996) (holding that the twelve-steps underlying AA programs are based on the monotheistic idea of a single God or Supreme Being, or, in other words, a religious concept of a Higher Power).
–Care Net Pregnancy Ctr. of Windham County v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., No. 11-2082 (RBW), 2012 WL 4801777 (D.D.C. Oct. 10, 2012) (upholding a hearing officer’s determination that a faith-based applicant for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)funding would violate the USDA’s regulations, Equal Opportunity for Religious Organizations, 7 C.F.R. § 16.3, where it intended to use USDA financial assistance to fund the complete acquisition cost of a facility to be used for both secular and religious activities).
–Hazle v. Crofoot, No. 2:08-cv-00295-GEB-KJM, 2010 WL 1407966 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 7, 2010) (concluding that a twelve-step recovery program based on the principles of AA and NA contained religious components).
–Freedom from Religion Found., Inc. v. McCallum, 179 F.Supp.2d 950 (W.D. Wis. 2002) (concluding that while AA is not a traditional form of religious worship the content of AA is religious in nature, and finding that an agency’s ability to estimate how much time counselors spend on religious versus non-religious matters does not mean that it is possible to make a clear distinction between the two roles that counselors play).
–Warburton v. Underwood, 2 F.Supp.2d 306 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (finding that the emphasis placed on God, spirituality, and faith in a Higher Power by twelve-step programs such as AA and NA supports a determination that the programs are religious.)
Q: A.A.’s Tenth Tradition states that A.A. “has no opinion on outside issues.” Aren’t the opinions of certain judges that A.A. is religious an “outside issue?”
A: They are not an outside issue if members of Alcoholics Anonymous and A.A. groups agree with those legal opinions and are willing to act on them. A.A. ignores or denies the well-reasoned and unbiased professional opinions of large numbers of some of A.A.’s best friends only at its peril. For more, see the Judicial Outreach page on this website.
Q: How can you work A.A.’s 12-step program without prayer and without reliance on a God of your own understanding?
A: There are an infinite number of ways to do that. If you attend any one of the growing number of secular A.A. meetings around the world, we will show you. A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature recognizes that some A.A. members think of an “unsuspected inner resource,” or their A.A. group, or the A.A. fellowship, as their “higher power.” Although Alcoholics Anonymous has 12 steps which speak of God, prayer and other religious practices which are suggested as a program of recovery, A.A. is much more than a program. Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others recover from alcoholism. For many of us, our A.A. fellowship – not a 12-step program or faith in a god – provides the power that helps us stay sober.