Alcoholism is a serious problem and it is widely believed that the only solution that works is the 12 Step Program, also known as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA also has a related organization known as Al-Anon, which is meant for the relatives and friends of those with alcoholism.
I'm very familiar with how AA operates because alcoholism has affected me through many people in my life who have suffered from this debilitating addiction. I've seen AA work and I’ve seen it fail. I want to clarify my stance on AA before I become critical. If AA works for you, that's great! I’m happy for anyone that can find sobriety using this program, as that’s what is most important. However, at the same time, it's not the only option and people suffering from AA need to be informed of those other options. My only concern is to help people understand what AA truly is, and to seek the appropriate avenue to becoming sober whether it’s through this program or other secular means. My biggest criticisms do not come from AA being a complete and total failure because it's not. My criticisms stem from the misinformation it promotes that potentially damages the ability for other people to get sober. I'm referring to the misinformation that AA promotes as the 3 Myths of AA and they are as follows: 1) AA is not religion 2) Alcoholism is a disease/you're not in control and 3) AA is the only solution.
In this post I want to address the first myth that says AA is not a religion. Let's look again at the 12 Step Website where all 12 steps of the program are laid out for you on the main page. Let's note steps 3,5,6,7, and 11. All those steps reference God. But who is their God? That is actually defined in step 2.
"2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity"
Here we have God defined as a "Higher Power" that is the only one who can help you through your addiction. So in order for you to get anything out of this program you must believe in a God and that God has intercessory powers.
Now, let's look at the Definition of Religion:
"A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects."
Looking again at the 12 steps we can see that they are a specific set of beliefs and practices that its members are required to adhere to. You cannot get anymore basic than this. So if you are an atheist and wish to get help, your beliefs are immediately in conflict with the tenants of AA.
I have been encouraged to go to Al-Anon, a subset of AA for people who aren’t alcoholics but are affected by people who are. I knew that AA required a belief in God and I did not see how a group that requires I believe that God will solve my problems would benefit me. You know what the stock response to that objection was every time? "Your higher power doesn't have to be a God; it can be a tree or a rock." My response, which never seemed to register, was: I do not have a higher power. They seem to conveniently ignore the fact that atheism doesn’t deny their god, but every god, and this includes nature worship. We do not accept any higher power at all, therefore we could never possibly benefit from an organization that insists we do. Furthermore, by insisting that a “Higher Power” can be a tree or a rock shows a complete lack of respect for atheists and for the god they are saying helps them stay sober. Let's be honest, if you believe in an intercessory god that saves you from alcoholism, it's not a rock.
The attempt at being an open organization for theists and atheists fails miserably. They fail to understand what an atheist is and pretend it has it both ways by saying your "Higher Power" can be whatever you want it to be. They try to sneak that in by referring to God with the phrase “as we understood Him". I have had people claim it is a spiritual organization, but not only does that leave out non-spiritual people, it is a description that continues to try and pretend it's not a religion when it most clearly is.
It is very evident to me that people in AA are mostly Christian. They will deny that's the case but it is blatantly obvious once you get to know the program. All the tenants of AA match with the ideology of the Christian religion, especially Catholicism. Christians believe they are full of sin from birth of which they have no control over and need Jesus to save them. AA promotes the disease theory, which makes alcoholism beyond their control and they must have God save them from their illness. People in AA know who their "Higher Power" is and it's the Christian God. In Penn & Teller's Bullshit episode about 12 Stepping which I highly recommend watching), they actually visit the AA headquarters and inside the building they had Christian crosses everywhere. Whenever people I know go to an AA meeting it's most often at a Catholic church hall. I've even been to AA meetings and it's very obvious to me what they mean when they say God.
Most importantly, in regards to AA as a religion, it is now becoming unconstitutional to give people a court order to attend AA. One court case example is reported in San Francisco where a Buddhist sued for being forced into a religious program. Another example of this happening is in Wisconsin. The simple fact is that ordering anyone into AA is a violation of Church and State because AA is a religion. End of story.
How can we possibly have an organization that claims to be the only way to keep you sober blatantly exclude those of a non Judeo-Christian faith, especially those without any faith at all? Luckily there is another option. There is something known as Secular Sobriety which is an organization that does not subscribe to any faith or religion as a means to sobriety.
In my next post on AA I will discuss the concept that alcoholism is a disease.