Daily Dispatches

AA spirituality offends both atheists and Christians


Fed up with the spirituality of traditional Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, a group called We Agnostics and Freethinkersis creating non-religious AA groups around the globe. This November it will host its first international convention in Santa Monica, Calif.

Ironically, atheists aren’t the only ones who have a problem with AA’s amorphous religiosity. So do many Christians. Atheists are offended by AA’s claim that recovery requires belief in a higher power and the use of religious material such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity prayer. But many Christians say AA’s definition of a higher power—“God as we understood him”—comes too close to secular humanism.

Bill Wilson, AA’s co-founder, described himself as someone who believed in a “Spirit of the Universe.” In the Big Book, the AA bible, Wilson discusses his inability to embrace the idea of a personal, loving God. Of Christ he says, “I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed him. For myself I had adopted those parts which seemed convenient and not too difficult; the rest I disregarded.”

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Wilson’s struggle with spirituality ended when a friend suggested he choose his own conception of God. That’s the idea incorporated in the second and third steps of the AA program. The second step states, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The third step says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

The concept of making up our own ideas of God is idolatry, said R. Scott Clark, professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California and minister at Escondido United Reformed Church. He remembers once hearing an AA leader tell the group that the light bulb in the ceiling could be the higher power if a person so chose. “In any AA meeting there are as many different gods as there are alcoholics in the room.” said Clark, who wrote a critique of AA for the Reformed Herald in 1987.

Eric Anderson, pastor of Lifespring Church, shares Clark’s concerns. Anderson  ministers Crosby, Minn., an old mining town ripe with substance abuse and AA programs. He describes AA as a very deceptive cult that convinces people “God is no higher than their emotions.”

AA has a long-standing history of helping people get sober and stay sober. And some eventually find their way to faith in Christ through first acknowledging the higher power promoted by AA. For others, the false spirituality is a stumbling block.

At least non-religious AA groups are more honest about their lack of belief in the God of the Bible. “There is no pretense,” Clark said.

Clark believes AA works to the degree that it imitates church and forms community. Many alcoholics feel more welcomed in AA meetings than they do in church. Clark suggests church members should be willing to fill the same on-call role that AA members offer each other in times of need.

Someone who spends the night holding an alcoholic’s hand as he suffers the shaking and vomiting that often accompany withdrawal forms a strong bond of love and encouragement, Clark writes. “Do we love one another in Christ as much as AA members love each other?”

Julie Borg
Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.


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