AA’s religious structure works for some, not all

Christopher Walker, Editor - in - Chief

Alcoholics Anonymous is the world’s premiere get-sober program, not just for alcoholism, but for a variety of addictions. The organization is synonymous with addiction recovery and treatment.

What is less-known about the organization and its 12-step program is how heavily it relies on religion and how crucial the step of surrendering oneself to a higher power is. Few non-recovering addicts are unaware of half of the steps in AA, six-out-of-12, place an emphasis on God.

Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of AA traditions, reminding members to place principles before personalities. Because of this, the two AA members sharing their views for this article are referred to by first names only.

Roger, the founder of one of the web’s most popular secular Alcoholics Anonymous websites, called AA Agnostica, said “I started the website about six years ago after my group was kicked out of the greater-Toronto AA organization. We changed the 12 steps to put less of an emphasis on God.”

“The original purpose of AA Agnostica was we wanted a website where people could find our meeting and know at what day and at what time it took place. It was a modest intent, but over the months, it just started growing. People around the world showed an interest in it.”


Now, AA Agnostica is one of the most-visited secular-recovery websites in the world. Roger turned the website into a haven for atheist and agnostic alcoholics still wanting to be part of AA.

“It became a website where, on a weekly basis, I would post an article from an atheist or agnostic in AA talking about his or her experience with recovery. After our website went up, the whole movement [of secular AA] started to explode. I take no credit for this movement at all; I ended up on a wave and ran with it.”

While many in the AA program find a secular online haven a relief, the majority of those in AA find comfort in the program’s insistence on a higher power. Michael, a recovering alcoholic in the New Orleans area, is happy with AA’s current structure. “Of course, I don’t want to force my beliefs on anyone, but AA has always been rooted in Christianity, and it helps a lot of people out. Clearly, something is working.”

“I have no problem with a secular part of AA popping up – those are people that have their own beliefs. I do not think, however, the 12 steps should be amended for this group’s sake. A lot of people like it how it is.”

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the early twentieth century by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the former of whom was heavily involved in an Evangelical Christian group called the Oxford Group.

The Oxford group’s philosophy and teachings are evident in the structure of the 12-step program, most notably in the belief human beings are considered not worthy, highly defective, and largely powerless.

Michael said, “There’s no question the way Bill wrote those 164 pages, that there was a religious element in it. The original book Wilson wrote says, ‘No human power could relieve our alcoholism, but God could and would if he were sought.’ Our organization has never tried to hide or deny its religious heritage.”

There are many addiction treatments popping up in the United States based on cutting-edge science and current research, and many feel AA’s 12-step program is becoming outdated.


Roger said, “What I find very disappointing about AA is they have no science or research committee that keeps up with the research and helpful findings that come from that kind of research. I feel one of the primary responsibilities of an organization dedicated to recovery of alcoholism is to keep up with science and keep up with research. AA does not.”


With all of Roger’s criticism of AA and his amendment of the 12-step program that got him kicked out for five years, why stick with the group at all?


“There is a fellowship in AA. This is a group of people who are alcoholics and who understand alcoholism – good people happily willing to lend you their support. I would prefer to do that without religion, but that fellowship is invaluable.”

Roger said, “I would still recommend AA to the average recovering addict. I’m going to quote a talk Bill Wilson gave in 1923. ‘It must never be forgotten: The purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership, no demands are made of anyone. An experience is offered, which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.’”