In September 2007, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favour of Ricky Inouye, a Buddhist drug offender who was sent back to prison after dropping out of a treatment program based on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Inouye sued the state of Hawaii, maintaining that AA is a religious program and that being required to attend it is a violation of the First Amendment.
This case tapped into a perennial misunderstanding about AA. Given the references to God and a “Higher Power” in AA’s Twelve Steps, it’s no surprise that people initially judge the program to be religious. Attending an AA meeting in a church basement can reinforce that impression.
Yet AA’s founders realized from the beginning that their sole purpose was to help people gain sobriety—not to convert them to any form of religion. In the words of the preamble that is often read at the beginning of AA meetings: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
This point is reinforced in “Alcoholics Anonymous,” AA’s core text (often called “the Big Book”). Even among the organization’s first members, it notes, “something like half of us thought we were atheists or agnostics.”
The Big Book does refer to spiritual awakening. However, this concept is defined strictly in operational terms—as a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.” No specific religious beliefs are required for this change. And, it occurs in many different ways.
If doubts about religion are holding you back from joining a Twelve Step group or supporting a group member, then consider the following points:
- While many religions require agreement with a set of doctrines, AA offers a set of practices. The emphasis in this spiritual program is not on what you believe but on what you do. AA’s program of action is detailed in the Twelve Steps, which call for telling the truth about your past and making amends for any harms you’ve caused. These tasks are not linked to any particular religion.
- You can define “Higher Power” in any way that works for you. Some people describe their Higher Power as God or Allah. But many discover it in the loving support of a friend, family member, or fellow AA member. The point is simply to admit your powerlessness over alcohol or another drug and then open up to any source of effective help outside yourself.
The Big Book emphasizes this point: “In our personal stories you will find a wide variation in the way each teller approaches and conceives of the Power which is greater than himself. Whether we agree with a particular approach or conception seems to make little difference.”
AA is embraced by members of many religions. For example, Judith Ragir is a Zen priest in St. Paul, Minn., who regularly leads meditation retreats that integrate Buddhist and Twelve Step principles. A description of these retreats on her Web site notes that the “two paths, combined, have proven for many to be an unshakable program for living with serenity.”
People from other traditions echo this insight. “Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religion and cannot take the place of religion,” writes Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski in “Spirituality, Prayer, the Twelve Steps and Judaism.” The rest of his essay presents Jewish teachings that resonate with each of the Twelve Steps.
AA can work for nonbelievers as well. According to 2002 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, agnostics and atheists gain the same benefits from AA participation as people with religious beliefs.
The Twelve Steps are suggestions, not absolutes. The only essentials in AA—along with a desire to stop drinking—are honesty, openness, and willingness to try out the program. Approach the Twelve Steps not as dogma but as a series of propositions to be tested in the laboratory of your daily life.
An AA slogan sums it up: “Take what works and leave the rest.”
Alive & Free is a health column that offers information to help prevent and address addiction and substance abuse problems. It is provided by Hazelden. For more resources check its Web site at hazelden.org.
- What About This Spiritual Awakening Thing?
- A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TWELVE STEPS
|Buddhism For Dummies
by Jonathan Landaw, Stephan Bodian