Twelve-Step Groups as Religious Organizations

by Charles Bufe

Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, 12-step drug and alcohol treatment programs, and all other 12-step groups are, in terms of ideology, carbon copies of Alcoholics Anonymous. For that reason, I’ll simply use “AA” in place of “AA, NA, CA, MA, and 12-step drug and alcohol treatment programs” in the following discussion.

Because the key factor in determining the constitutionality of coerced 12-step participation is the religious nature of 12-step programs, it’s first necessary to define the term religion. So, before deciding whether AA and other 12-step groups are religious organizations, let’s first consider definitions of religion from three widely known American dictionaries. (To conserve space, I’ve included only the primary and secondary definitions of “religion” from the Webster’s Unabridged and Random House dictionaries.)

religion, n. 1. concern over what exists beyond the visible world, differentiated from philosophy in that it operates through faith or intuition rather than reason, and generally including the idea of the existence of a single being, a group of beings, an eternal principle or a transcendent spiritual entity that has created the world, that governs it, that controls its destinies, or that intervenes occasionally in the natural course of its history, as well as the idea that ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, certain principles of everyday conduct, etc., are expedient, due, or spiritually rewarding, or arise naturally out of an inner need as a human response to the belief in such a being, principle, etc. 2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language

religion, n. 1. The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship. 2. One of the systems of faith and worship. 3. The profession or practice of religious beliefs; religious observances, collectively. 4. Devotion or fidelity; conscientiousness. 5. An awareness or conviction of the existence of a supreme being, arousing reverence, love, gratitude, the will to obey and serve, and the like. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

religion, n. 1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. 2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

These definitions vary considerably, but they have several things in common, the most important being belief in God. All three of them mention this (or a synonym for it) in their primary definitions of the term “religion.” The other most important defining criteria are faith, ritual, and commonly held beliefs, all of which are mentioned by all three dictionaries, though not necessarily in their primary definitions. It’s also important to note that under the above definitions not all of these things need be present to qualify a person, organization, or ideology as religious. Belief in God is enough. It’s the primary determining factor; all of the others are subsidiary and flow from it. To put the matter in schematic form, religion according to these dictionary definitions primarily consists of:

1) Belief in God (or gods)
2) Faith
3) Ritual
4) Commonly held beliefs

Under these defining criteria, especially the first and most important, AA and all other 12-step groups are undeniably religious in nature. Their history, ideology, and practices leave no doubt on this point. A brief look at dictionary definitions of “religious,” the adjectival form of “religion,” reinforces this conclusion. (Again, to conserve space, only the primary and secondary definitions are included here.)

religious, adj. 1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with religion: a religious holiday. 2. imbued with or exhibiting religion; pious; devout; godly: a religious man. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language

religious, adj. 1. Manifesting devotion to, or the influence of, religion; godly. 2. Belonging to, or followed by, an order of religious; as the religious life. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

religious, adj. 1.of, pertaining to, or concerned with religion: a religious holiday. 2. imbued with or exhibiting religion; pious; devout; godly: a religious man. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, all of the primary and secondary definitions here indicate that “religious” basically means “having to do with religion.” Note also that all of these definitions emphasize the importance of deistic belief to religion by including the term “godly” in either their first or second meanings. Thus, even a cursory glance at AA’s official, conference-approved literature, with its repeated mentions of God, the importance of belief in God, and its exhortations to pray to God not to mention AA meetings, with their public prayers, witnessing, collections, and confessions provides convincing proof that Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious organization.

Religious Elements in AA’s Practices

AA’s religiosity is immediately apparent to almost anyone who attends an AA meeting. Many newcomers are struck by the revival-like atmosphere of 12-step meetings (including this writer, who, at his first AA meeting in 1983, in a church basement, half expected the congregants to begin speaking in tongues).

A typical AA meeting begins with a prayer, the Serenity Prayer. As Bill Sees It (Wilson, 1967), a prayer book-like piece of official (conference-approved) AA literature, complete with a ribbon hanging from the top of its spine, notes: “In 1941, a news clipping was called to our attention by a New York member. In an obituary notice from a local paper, there appeared these words: ‘God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words. With amazing speed the Serenity Prayer came into general use” (Wilson, 1967, p. 108). Another similar account by AA co-founder Bill Wilson (also in conference-approved literature) of the adoption of this prayer notes: “with amazing speed the Serenity Prayer came into general use and took its place alongside our two other favorites, the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer of St. Francis” (p. 196).

Thus AA meetings normally open with a prayer to God, directly meeting two of the four criteria of religious activity (belief in God and ritual [public prayer]), and indirectly meeting at least one of the other two (faith that God can “grant” “serenity,” “courage,” and “wisdom”). One could also argue that this prayer meets the fourth defining criterion of religion as well: given “the amazing speed [with which] the Serenity Prayer came into general use” (emphasis added), it seems reasonable to conclude that the concepts it outlines constitute commonly held beliefs.

Following the Serenity Prayer, members normally introduce themselves in ritualized fashion: “Hi, I’m Bill. I’m an alcoholic,” “I’m Ed. I’m an alcoholic,” “I’m John, alcoholic,” until everyone has identified him or herself using the key term, “alcoholic.” The meeting secretary will then ask if there are any out-of-towners at the meeting and, if so, to please identify themselves. Next, he or she will ask if any of the members has a birthday (an anniversary of months or years of sobriety). If anyone does, he or she will often participate in another ritual being awarded a “sobriety chip.” Next, often, the secretary will make any AA-related announcements.

What happens after this varies considerably, depending on the type of meeting. At speaker meetings, a speaker will rise and address the meeting for anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour. Such addresses often fall into the following pattern: the speaker will begin with a lurid and prolonged description of his drinking behavior, and how it led to his downfall. He’ll then describe the shame and hopelessness he felt as a drinking alcoholic, and how as a last resort he went to an AA meeting. He’ll then say how he was put off by “the God stuff” at the meeting, but that the people there “had something [he] wanted,” so he kept coming back. Before long, he overcame his doubts, and since turning his life over to AA’s “Higher Power,” his life has been transformed. Following such presentations, the secretary will normally throw the meeting open to questions and comments, and pass the hat.

Another typical type of AA meeting is the discussion meeting. Such meetings can either be open to any topic raised by members or, often, are on topics suggested by the meeting secretary. Topics can range anywhere from day-to-day ways of staying sober to one’s relationship with God. Still another typical meeting is the “step meeting,” the purpose of which is to discuss the 12 steps, AA’s central (and, as we’ll see, very religious) tenets.

At almost all meetings, at a set time the secretary will normally close the meeting. At most, members rise, hold hands, say the Lord’s Prayer, and end with the chant, “Keep coming back! It works!”

The above descriptions come from my attendance at scores of AA meetings in San Francisco in the mid and late 1980s. Judging from meeting descriptions in AA’s official literature, meetings have changed little since AA’s early days. Clarence S., founder of AA in Cleveland, briefly describes early meetings in Akron (AA’s birthplace): “The leader would open with a prayer, then read Scripture. Then he would spend 20 to 30 minutes giving witness that is, telling about his past life. Then it would open for witness from the floor” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980, pp. 139 140). Another early member recalls that “the meeting closed with the Lord’s Prayer” (p. 141).

The official biography of AA’s co-founder, “Dr. Bob” Smith, describes a discussion meeting in Akron in the 1940s: “When the time came, the speaker would go up front, wait for quiet, and introduce himself. He opened with a prayer of his own choosing, then gave a five-minute ‘lead.’ Usually it would be on a specific subject a passage from The Upper Room [a Methodist periodical] or a verse from the Bible. Then he asked other members to make short comments” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980, p. 220). Smith’s official biography later notes: “The widow of an oldtimer remembered Dr. Bob standing up at the meeting with ‘the Good Book under his arm’ and recalled that he used to say the answers were there if you looked for them. . . . Dr. Bob donated that Bible to the King School Group [his “home” group], where it still rests on the podium at each meeting” (pp. 227 228).

Clarence S. also describes early meetings in Cleveland (the place where the name “Alcoholics Anonymous” was first used, rather than “Oxford Group”): “We opened with an audible prayer. The speaker, who was chosen four weeks in advance, spoke for 45 minutes, and we closed with the Lord’s Prayer” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980, p. 261).

Thus, AA meetings at least in terms of structure and content seem to have changed remarkably little over the past six decades. AA meetings normally begin and end with a prayer to God, often include readings from an “inspired” text (formerly the Bible, now, usually, the Big Book) and their central sections normally deal with either redemption via a Higher Power (speaker meetings) or with the proper ways to work AA’s religious program (step meetings). Given these facts, it’s easy to see through history, philosophy, tradition, and current practice that AA meetings are religious in nature. In fact, appeal-level courts have carried out analyses quite similar to those in this chapter and have found that both internally (in terms of its historical documents and the wording of its “sacraments”; cf. Griffin v. Coughlin, 1996), and externally (in terms of its practices, such as prayers and witnessing at meetings; cf. Warner v. Orange County, 1999) that AA is indisputably religious.

Religious Elements in AA’s Program and Literature

The 12 steps are the backbone of the AA program. A majority of Alcoholics Anonymous members regard them in the same reverent manner that fundamentalist Christians regard the Ten Commandments. This is no accident, considering the overtly religious nature of the steps and how they are presented: they were drawn directly from the teachings of the Oxford Groups, the evangelical Christian movement to which AA’s co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, belonged, and of which AA was a part until the late 1930s; and in the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous AA’s fundamental text) (Wilson, 1939, 1976) the 12 steps are presented as the means by which to directly access God’s help. In Chapter 5, titled “How It Works,” the Big Book’s author, AA co-founder Bill Wilson, comments immediately before listing the steps:

Remember that we deal with alcohol cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power that One is God. May you find Him now! Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon. Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery. (Wilson, 1939, 1976, pp. 58 59)

Please note the capitalization. Please also note that God’s help is presented here as necessary to overcoming an alcohol problem. (“Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power that one is God.”)

The 12 steps themselves are just as religious as Wilson’s introduction to them:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

(Wilson, 1939, 1976, pp. 59 60)

There are several things worthy of note in these steps. The first is that these are not a set of sequential steps to help individuals overcome alcohol problems. Alcohol is mentioned only in the first step, which strongly implies that individuals cannot overcome alcohol problems on their own. The remainder of the steps implore alcoholics to abandon attempts at self-help in favor of engaging in religious activities and turning their problems over to God.

God or a synonymous term is mentioned in fully half of the 12 steps (steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11). Despite the qualifying phrase, “as we understood Him,” the God referred to in the steps is most decidedly a conventional patriarchal God as conceived in Judeo-Christianity. (Note the capitalized masculine pronouns, “Him” and “His.”) Many members of AA will deny this, and will insist that the “Power greater than ourselves” mentioned in step 2 can be anything that an individual chooses a doorknob, a lightbulb, a bedpan, or even AA itself (G.O.D. Group Of Drunks). AA co-founder Bill Wilson himself used this line of argument: “You can, if you wish, make A.A. itself your ‘higher power'” (Wilson, 1953, p. 27).

But the very next step gives lie to this contention: how can individuals turn their “will [sic] and lives over to the care of God” if God is a doorknob? This concept of God reduces AA’s program to gibberish. Because of the qualities and powers AA ascribes to it, AA’s God cannot be anything other than a conventional, patriarchal God.

In order for the AA 12-step program to make sense, the God mentioned in the steps must be a God intimately concerned with the lives of individuals, a God concerned with “our wrongs,” a God that will direct lives and remove “shortcomings” and “defects of character” if only “humbly asked.” No doorknob can do this. And while in a totalitarian society it might be possible for an individual to turn his “will and li[fe]” over to AA (as G.O.D.) and to have AA run all aspects of his life, this is not a possibility in a relatively open society. It’s also exceedingly difficult to see how AA (as G.O.D.) could remove “shortcomings” or “defects of character,” and the concept of an individual praying to AA (as G.O.D.) (step 11) is simply grotesque.

There’s no getting around it: the God presented in the 12 steps the bedrock of AA is a patriarchal, all-powerful deity, vitally concerned with, and intervening in, the lives of its supplicants. In short, it’s the God of patriarchal religions.

This holds true for the other Anonymous groups as well. The 12 steps of in all likelihood all such groups are essentially identical to those of AA, differing in only the use of single terms in the first and twelfth steps. For instance, Narcotics Anonymous (after AA, the largest of the 12-step groups) uses “our addiction” in place of “alcohol” in the first step, and “addicts” rather than “alcoholics” in the twelfth step; other than that, NA’s 12 steps are identical to AA’s. To cite another example, Sexaholics Anonymous yes, this group really exists substitutes “lust” for “alcohol” in the first step and “sexaholics” for “alcoholics” in the twelfth step; all of the other steps are exactly the same as AA’s. Thus the programs of NA and other 12-step groups are just as religious as AA’s program. To emphasize that its program is identical to AA’s, Narcotics Anonymous, NA’s “Basic Text” (the NA equivalent of the Big Book), plainly states, “We follow a program borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous” (NA, 1982, p. 11).

There are other religious elements in the steps. Step 2 (“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”) is an expression of another defining criterion of religiosity: faith. Steps 4 and 5 (“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”) are a description of a common religious ritual: confession. Step 11 (“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”) is a direct invocation of still another common religious ritual: prayer; and step 7 (“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings”) also strongly implies prayer, but doesn’t use the term directly.

As if to emphasize the religiosity of step 7, Wilson, in his discussion of how to “work” the steps, comments:

Are we now ready to let God remove from us all the things which we have admitted [in steps 4 and 5] are objectionable? Can He now take them all every one? If we still cling to something we will not let go, we ask God to help us be willing.

When ready, we say something like this: “My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of the good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.” We have then completed Step Seven. (Wilson, 1939, 1976, p. 76)

Thus, according to AA co-founder Wilson, one should “work” the seventh step through prayer. He makes a similar recommendation regarding the tenth step:

Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve Thee Thy will (not mine) be done.” These are thoughts which must go with us constantly. (Wilson, 1939, 1976, p. 85)

In his discussion of step 11, Wilson describes the purpose of the 12 steps: divine guidance, coming into “conscious contact with God,” and relying upon divine “inspiration”:

In thinking about our day we may face indecision. We may not be able to determine which course to take. Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. We relax and take it easy. We don’t struggle. We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while. What used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind. Being still inexperienced and having just made conscious contact with God, it is not probable that we are going to be inspired at all times. We might pay for this presumption in all sorts of absurd actions and ideas. Nevertheless, we find that our thinking will, as time passes, be more and more on the plane of inspiration. We come to rely upon it. (pp. 86 87)

As we’ll see later in more detail, none of the concepts codified in the 12 steps originated with AA’s co-founders or early members. Rather, they came directly from the Protestant evangelical group (Oxford Group Movement) of which AA was a part for its first several years, and to which both AA co-founders belonged when they met in 1935.

Going beyond the steps, religious elements abound in the Big Book. It devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 4, “We Agnostics”) to attacking atheists and agnostics as being “prejudice[d]” or crazy, and to presenting belief in God as the only way to restore “sanity.” In that chapter Wilson comments, “To one who feels he is an atheist or agnostic such an experience seems impossible, but to continue as he is means disaster . . . To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face” (Wilson, 1939, 1976, p. 44). He next comments, “But [the “new man’s”] face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored” (p. 45). He goes on, “We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results” (p. 46), and he concludes, “God restored us all to our right minds. . . . When we drew near to Him He disclosed Himself to us!” (p. 57). Thus in AA, if one rejects deistic belief, one is by definition insane, “prejudice[d]” and “doomed to an alcoholic death.” (See also step 2, in which God is credited with “restor[ing] us to sanity.”)

The Big Book is also saturated with religious terms. Author Vince Fox took the first 20 pages of preliminary matter plus the 164 pages of actual text (excluding the personal stories) and found 174 references to “God and God-associated words” (God, God’s, godly, God-given, etc.). He also found another 62 “personal pronouns relative to God, with first letter capitalized” (He, His, Him, etc.) (Fox, 1993, p. 51). When one adds other synonyms for “God” (Maker, Father, Creator, Higher Power, Power greater than ourselves, etc. all with initial capitalization), the number of “God and God-associated words” in the Big Book rises to in excess of 250. In addition to those hundreds of godly references, Fox also reports that the Big Book contains 11 biblical references and all this in a short text typeset in a space-wasting format.

A pro-AA researcher’s figures agree with those of Fox: “The name ‘God,’ spelled with a capital ‘G,’ appears at least 132 times through page 164 of the Big Book; and pronouns for God, such as ‘He’, ‘Him’, ‘His’, etc., are mentioned eighty times” (Stewart C., 1986, pp. 115 116, as cited by Dick B., 1992, p. 97).

It’s also relevant that Bill Wilson believed that he was under divine guidance when he wrote the 12 steps. Wilson’s wife Lois states:

How could he bring the program alive so that those at a distance, reading the book, could apply it to themselves and perhaps get well? He had to be very explicit. The six Oxford Group principles that the Fellowship had been using were not enough. He must broaden and deepen their implications. He relaxed and asked for guidance. When he finished writing and reread what he had put down, he was quite pleased. Twelve principles had developed the Twelve Steps. (L. Wilson, 1979, p. 113) (Note the capitalization.)

(Not incidentally, anyone who accepts that Bill Wilson was divinely guided when he wrote the 12 steps must necessarily grant those steps the status of revealed wisdom. This places Wilson on the level of the Old Testament prophets, and the Big Book on the level of scripture.)

Another indication that Wilson and his fellow AAs believed that he was divinely inspired is found in AA’s official Wilson biography, Pass It On (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1984), where Wilson (or a fellow AA in his company, though it was probably Wilson) is quoted as follows in replying to a suggestion that Wilson make changes in the Big Book: “Why [change it]? What is the matter with it? It is perfect”(p. 204). One doubts that Bill Wilson was so egotistical as to think that he, as a “powerless” individual, could write a “perfect” work; he undoubtedly believed that he was under God’s direction when he wrote the book. Many current AA members almost certainly believe that Wilson did indeed have divine help. In the mid 1990s, one service worker in AA’s General Service Office stated: “I consider the Big Book as an inspired text, written by Bill under the guidance of the spirit” (quoted in Delbanco & Delbanco, 1995, p. 51).

AA’s second most important text, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (known colloquially as the “Twelve and Twelve”), the second book published by AA, and also written by Bill Wilson (Wilson, 1953), is a guide to “working” the 12 steps and to following the 12 traditions, AA’s organizational principles. Its very title emphasizes the centrality of the 12 steps to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions amply confirms that the 12 steps are indeed religious principles (as defined by the dictionary criteria listed above). One indication that this is so is that Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is every bit as soaked in religious terminology as the Big Book. As an example, a quick reading reveals that the nine pages devoted to the discussion of step 2 contain at least 30 references to God, synonyms for it, or capitalized masculine pronouns referring to it. Wilson’s actual statements are even more revealing.

In his discussion of step 2, Wilson notes: “we had to look for our lost faith. It was in A.A. that we rediscovered it. So can you” (Wilson, 1953, p. 29). This presents the achievement of “faith” one of the defining criteria of religion as a central purpose of AA.

In discussing step 3, Wilson underlines the religiosity of the steps by commenting: “. . . it is only by action that we can cut away the self- will which has always blocked the entry of God or, if you like, a Higher Power into our lives. . . . Therefore our problem now becomes just how and by what specific means shall we be able to let Him in” (p. 34). He continues: “That is just where the remaining Steps of the A.A. program come in. Nothing short of continuous action upon these as a way of life can bring the much desired result” (p. 40). Wilson then makes an extremely revealing statement: “Our whole trouble had been the misuse of willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God’s intention for us. To make this increasingly possible is the purpose of A.A.’s Twelve Steps, and Step Three opens the door” (p. 40).

These three statements emphasize the centrality of deistic belief in AA, and that the purpose of AA’s 12 steps includes the induction of such belief, but goes beyond it: the purpose of the 12 steps, as indicated here by Wilson, is not only to lead individuals to belief, but to have them turn their wills and lives over to the God to which the steps lead them.

Wilson ends his discussion of step 3 with the recommendation, “In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision, we can pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness simply say [the Serenity Prayer]” (p. 41). This is a recommendation to engage in still another activity that’s a defining criterion of religion: ritual (prayer).

In his discussion of step 4, making “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” Wilson makes an extraordinary suggestion: that one’s inventory of moral “defects” be based on “a universally recognized list of major human failings the Seven Deadly Sins [!] of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth” (p. 48). Contrary to Wilson’s assertion, these are not “a universally recognized list of major human failings.” Rather, they are a specifically Christian list of sins coming straight out of the Church of the Middle Ages. To point out the obvious, many atheists and agnostics would consider every single one of these “universally recognized . . . failings” as far less loathsome than cruelty which Wilson does not list as a universally recognized character defect and almost certainly as no worse than hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. In his discussion of “moral [another religious term] failings,” Wilson sticks to his specifically medieval Christian list of defects thus pointing out the Christian origins and orientation of AA’s 12-step program.

As for step 5, the ritual of confession, Wilson notes: “Many an A.A., once agnostic or atheist, tells us that it was during this stage of Step Five that he first actually felt the presence of God. And even those who had faith already often become conscious of God as they never were before” (p. 62). Among other things, this statement strongly implies that one of the effects of working step 5 is the production of faith in God an unambiguously religious effect.

Commenting on step 6, Wilson states: “Of course, the often disputed question of whether God can and will, under certain conditions remove defects of character will be answered with a prompt affirmative by almost any A.A. member. To him, this proposition will be no theory at all; it will be just about the largest fact in his life” (p. 63). This statement implies deistic belief, faith that God can “remove defects of character,” and, importantly, unanimity of belief the fourth defining criterion of religion.

Going on to step 7, Wilson states: “As long as we placed self- reliance first, a genuine reliance upon a Higher Power was out of the question” (p. 72). He later continues, “Refusing to place God first, we had deprived ourselves of His help. But now the words ‘Of myself I am nothing, the Father doeth the works’ began to carry bright promise and meaning” (p. 75). This statement again underlines the centrality of deistic belief in AA, and the centrality of suppression of self and suppression of self-direction that AA’s particular type of deistic belief involves.

Regarding step 8, Wilson concludes: “It is the beginning of the end of isolation from our fellows and from God” (p. 82). Yet again, this emphasizes that the primary focus of the steps is deistic belief.

In discussing step 10, Wilson comments: “we are today sober only by the grace of God and . . . any success we may be having is far more His success than ours” (p. 92). This is a very direct statement about the centrality of deistic belief in AA, and the belief that AA’s God plays a directing role in the lives of AA members.

Wilson begins his comments on step 11 with the statement: “Prayer and meditation are our principal means of conscious contact with God” (p. 96). This is a direct statement of the importance of both deistic belief and religious ritual in AA; and note the term “our,” which implies uniformity of practice. To emphasize the importance of prayer in AA, Wilson continues: “Those of us who have come to make regular use of prayer would no more do without it than we would refuse air, food, or sunshine” (p. 97). Indeed, the entire discussion of step 11 in the “Twelve and Twelve” is a paean to the power and wonders of prayer.

In his discussion of step 12, Wilson makes another extraordinarily revealing statement:

So, practicing these Steps, we had a spiritual awakening about which finally there was no question. Looking at those who were only beginning and still doubted themselves, the rest of us were able to see the change setting in. From great numbers of such experiences, we could predict that the doubter who still claimed that he hadn’t got the “spiritual angle,” and who still considered his well-loved A.A. group the higher power, would presently love God and call Him by name. (Wilson, 1953, p. 109)

This reveals that not only are AA’s 12 steps religious in nature, but that their goal is religious indoctrination. This also reveals that AA’s “Power greater than ourselves” (from step 2) is a component in a bait- and-switch tactic leading to belief in a conventional, patriarchal God.

In this statement, Wilson is positively gloating about the effectiveness of AA’s indoctrination process in changing religious beliefs. This is really the last word about the purpose and effects of AA’s 12 steps.

AA’s Religious Origins

Because the purpose of this chapter is merely to demonstrate that AA is a religious organization, the discussion here of AA’s origins as part of the Protestant evangelical group, the Oxford Group Movement (OGM later Moral Re-Armament, MRA), will be somewhat brief. It’s enough here to show that AA’s central beliefs and practices are religious in nature, and that they came directly from the religious group of which AA was originally a part.

There are two common misconceptions about AA’s origins: 1) that AA sprang into being as an independent entity with the meeting of its two co-founders, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, in 1935; and 2) that the ideas expressed in the 12 steps were conceived and formulated independently by Bill Wilson. Both of these beliefs are entirely wrong. For the first several years of its existence AA was a part of the Oxford Group Movement; and the concepts codified in the 12 steps came entirely from the Oxford Groups there is not a single original idea in them.

As for what the Oxford Group Movement (now Moral Re- Armament) is, the Rev. Sherwood Day noted in an OGM pamphlet, The Principles of the Oxford Group Movement, that “the principles of ‘The Oxford Group’ are the principles of the Bible” (cited by Dick B., 1992, p. 6). More recently, T. Willard Hunter, a long-time OGM member, ordained minister, and close associate of OGM founder Frank Buchman in the 1940s and 1950s, stated: “The Oxford Group was initiated by an American, Frank N.D. Buchman, as a life-changing Christian movement” (Hunter, n.d., p. 1). Lois Wilson (AA co- founder Bill Wilson’s wife) defined the OGM as “an international evangelical movement” (L. Wilson, 1979, p. 92).

When AA’s co-founders met in Akron, Ohio in May 1935, they were both members of that international evangelical movement. It had been founded approximately 15 years earlier by Lutheran minister Frank Nathan David Buchman, who had originally called it “A First Century Christian Fellowship.” Throughout the 1920s, its focus was campus missionary activities. In the late 1920s, Buchman, who had moved to England, began to call his crusade the Oxford Group Movement though its ties to the town of Oxford and Oxford University were tenuous.

By the early 1930s, the focus of the Oxford Group Movement had shifted from campus evangelism to mass evangelism aimed at the middle and upper classes, with some OGM events drawing over 10,000 participants. During this period, both Bill Wilson (a former Wall Street insider) and Bob Smith (a Dartmouth-educated surgeon) became members. Smith, a very religious man, had joined approximately two-and-a-half years prior to his meeting with Wilson, and had been active in the local Oxford Group in Akron. Wilson was introduced to the Oxford Group Movement in the fall of 1934 by a former drinking buddy, Ebby Thatcher, who credited the Oxford Groups with helping him to stop drinking (temporarily, as it turned out).

Wilson later recalled the Oxford Group message that Thatcher brought to him: “You admit you are licked; you get honest with yourself; you talk it out with somebody else; you make restitution to the people you have harmed; you try to give of yourself without stint, with no demand for reward; and you pray to whatever God you think there is, even as an experiment” (Wilson, 1957, pp. 62 63). This list is very similar to the list of OGM principles Lois Wilson compiled: “The Oxford Group precepts were in substance: surrender your life to God; take a moral inventory; confess your sins to God and another human being; make restitution; give of yourself to others with no demand for return; pray to God for help to carry out these principles” (L. Wilson, 1979, p. 92). One can easily see here the formula later codified in the 12 steps.

Shortly after Ebby’s visit, Wilson entered the drying-out facility, Towns Hospital, where he had his “spiritual awakening” (under the influence of morphine, belladonna, and other drugs). Following that awakening, he plunged himself into OGM work.

He later recalled:

Confession, restitution, and direct guidance of God underlined every conversation. They [OGM members] were talking about morality and spirituality, about God-centeredness versus self-centeredness. . . . Their aim was world conversion. Everybody, as they put it, needed changing. . . . Agreeing with James in the New Testament, they thought people ought to confess their sins “one to another.” . . . Not only were things to be confessed, something was to be done about them. This usually took the form of what they called restitution, the restoration of good personal relationships by making amends for harms done.

They were most ardent, too, in their practice of meditation and prayer . . . They felt that when people commenced to adhere to these high moral standards, then God could enter and direct their lives. Under these conditions, every individual could receive specific guidance, which could inspire every decision and act of living, great or small. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1984, pp. 127 128)

Wilson convinced that the OGM principles outlined by Ebby Thatcher were his gateway to salvation began attending OGM meetings at the Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary Episcopal Church. (Shoemaker was then the leading OGM figure in the United States, and Wilson would eventually become close friends with him.) At the same time, Dr. Bob Smith was attending Oxford Group meetings in Akron, Ohio, and still drinking heavily.

They met in May 1935, when Wilson was in Akron on a business trip. They had a lot in common: serious alcohol abuse problems, conservative politics, upper-middle-class backgrounds, membership in the Oxford Group Movement, and faith that the principles of the Oxford Group Movement were the means of salvation as regards alcohol and all other human problems. Given that one of the OGM principles was that one must “carry the message” to other “sinners,” it was natural that Wilson and Smith teamed up to save other alcoholics through converting them to Oxford Group beliefs. Thus what was to become AA was born in June 1935, when Smith quit drinking and he and Wilson plunged into carrying the Oxford Group message to other alcoholics.

Smith and Wilson spent the summer of that year attempting to save alcoholics in Akron, and upon Wilson’s return to New York at the end of summer, both men continued to “carry the message” to alcoholics in their respective cities. For the next two years what was to become AA operated as part of the Oxford Group Movement in New York, as it did for the next four years in Akron. Commenting on the direction in those years of what came to be AA, Wilson’s worshipful biographer, Robert Thomsen, comments: “They [Smith and Wilson] tried to base everything they did, every step they took toward formulating their program, on Oxford Group principles” (Thomsen, 1975, p. 239).

As we’ve already seen, meetings at this time opened and closed with prayers, often featured scripture reading, and usually included a speaker “giving witness.” Prayer was quite prominent in meetings during this period, and at the Akron meetings potential members were required to get down on their knees and “surrender” to God before joining the group (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980, pp. 85, 88 89, 101). Another indication of the importance of prayer to what was to become AA is the original wording of the Big Book’s step 7: “Humbly on our knees asked Him to remove these shortcomings holding nothing back” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1984, p. 198, emphasis added). Pass It On, AA’s official Wilson biography, notes: “In both Akron and New York, early members followed the Oxford Group practice of kneeling together in prayer” (p. 191).

The reasons that AA eventually split off from the Oxford Group Movement had virtually nothing to do with differences over principles. Rather, the reasons for the split were either 1) personality conflicts; 2) social-status concerns; or 3) purely pragmatic matters. When AA split off from the Oxford Group Movement in New York in 1937, it was primarily because of personality conflicts between Bill Wilson and members of the Oxford Group at Calvary Episcopal Church, who felt that Wilson was “not maximum,” because he’d started holding OGM meetings for alcoholics only at his and Lois’ house (L. Wilson, 1979, p. 103). The nonalcoholic Oxford Groupers also felt that Wilson’s work with alcoholics was “narrow and divisive” (W. Wilson, 1984, p. 169). For their part, the alcoholic OGM members felt that the other Groupers didn’t understand them.

The reasons for the split from the OGM in Akron (and Cleveland) were similar; there was no conflict with the OGM over principles. The wife of Bill D., AA’s third member, recalls: “It was all Oxford Group then [mid and late 1930s] . . . We were all members” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980, p. 88). During the entire time before the split with the OGM, Dr. Bob was quite dedicated to the Oxford Group’s Christian principles: “When he stopped drinking, people asked, ‘What’s this not-drinking-liquor club you’ve got over there?’ ‘A Christian fellowship,’ he’d reply” (p. 118). One early member of Akron AA recalls: “We were Oxford Groupers until we physically moved out” (of the locale of the OGM’s Akron meetings) (p. 157).

One of the reasons that the split occurred in Ohio was that there were social tensions in the Akron Oxford Group similar to those in New York:

Bill [D.] noted that the Oxford Group’s practice of “checking” (one member’s judging the authenticity of divine guidance that another claimed to have received) gave alcoholics the feeling that the O.G. leaders were ganging up on them. He also cited a technique of making people feel unwanted or uncomfortable until they agreed with some particular O.G. point of view. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980, p. 157)

But there were other factors at work in Akron (and Cleveland) in 1939. Some “Oxford Groupers felt that participation by alcoholics lowered their own prestige,” and because of well-justified fear of public drunkenness and subsequent ridicule “the alcoholics were becoming more insistent on anonymity at the public level a principle that clashed with Buchman’s program of advertising the ‘change’ in people’s directions as a way of attracting others to his organization” (pp. 158 159).

As well, many of the alcoholic members of the OGM were worried that continued OGM affiliation would drive away Roman Catholic alcoholics, or result in their being banned from joining by the Catholic hierarchy:

By early 1939, Clarence S. had developed into a sparkplug for the Cleveland A.A. contingent. He and Dorothy were bringing men down every week to the [OGM] meeting at T. Henry’s [in Akron]. Many of them were Catholic. Clarence remembered telling them that the Oxford Group meetings wouldn’t interfere with their religion. “However, the testimony given by members at the meetings seemed like open confession to them, and this was something they were not allowed to practice,” according to Clarence. “Furthermore, the idea of receiving guidance didn’t sit well. And to top it off, they [the Oxford Groupers] were using the wrong Bible [the King James version, rather than the Catholic-approved Douay version].” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980, p. 162)

As a result of these problems, the Cleveland group began calling itself Alcoholics Anonymous, after the recently published Big Book, in May 1939, and the Akron group later began doing the same.

The New York group no longer a part of the Oxford Group Movement, but still adhering to OGM principles was also having problems reconciling its principles and practices with those of potential Catholic members, and was quite worried that Catholics would be barred from joining. The result of these worries was that when Bill Wilson wrote the Big Book he adhered to OGM principles almost to the letter, codified the central OGM principles as the heart of AA’s program (the 12 steps) and pointedly failed to give the Oxford Groups a single word of credit in the entire book. He also pointedly included no specifically Protestant references in the book; rather, he relied upon nondenominational religious terminology (“God,” “Father,” “Creator,” etc.). After he finished writing it, he even submitted the manuscript to the Catholic Committee on Publications of the Archdiocese of New York and “quickly accepted . . . some minor changes” the Committee recommended (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1984, p. 201).

Before ending this discussion of AA’s religious background, it is fitting to return to the OGM principles that were codified in the 12 steps. Commenting on an early draft of the Big Book’s famous steps, AA’s official Wilson biography, Pass It On, notes:

Oxford Group ideas prevail in these original six steps, as listed by Bill: “1. We admitted that we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol. “2. We made a moral inventory of our defects or sins. “3. We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence. “4. We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking. “5. We tried to help other alcoholics, with no thought of reward in money or prestige. “6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1984, p. 197)

Wilson shortly expanded these six steps to the present twelve. Because the principles in these six steps almost completely overlap those of the 12 steps, it’s fair to say that the above passage in Pass It On is a direct admission in AA’s conference-approved literature that AA’s 12-step program comes straight from the Oxford Group Movement.

In later years, when fears of Catholic reaction had faded, Bill Wilson and AA explicitly credited the Oxford Group Movement as the source of the concepts codified in the 12 steps:

The Twelve Steps of A.A. simply represented an attempt to state in more detail, breadth, and depth, what we had been taught primarily by you [former OGM American leader, Sam Shoemaker]. Without this, there could have been nothing nothing at all.
(Dick B., 1992, p. 10, citing a 1963 Wilson letter to Shoemaker)


Where did early AA’s . . . learn about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning our wills and lives over to God? Where did we learn about meditation and prayer and all the rest of it? . . . straight from Dr. Bob’s and my own early association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. (Wilson, 1988, p. 198)

In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Wilson again credits Shoemaker and the Oxford Groups with providing AA’s central principles:

. . . Many a channel had been used by Providence to create Alcoholics Anonymous. And none had been more vitally needed than the one opened through Sam Shoemaker and his Oxford Group associates . . . the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else. . . . A.A. owes a debt of timeless gratitude for all that God sent us through Sam and his friends in the days of A.A.’s infancy. (Wilson, 1957, pp. 39 40)

Thus AA kept the substance of the Oxford Group Movement’s religious program while, for purely pragmatic reasons, changing the label and softening some terms. Wilson later explained the pronounced AA tendency toward euphemism in this way: “These ideas had to be fed with teaspoons rather than by buckets” (Wilson, 1957, p. 75). (The “spiritual, not religious” claim is a good example of this.)

To put all this in better perspective, let’s take a look at exactly which steps correspond to which OGM principles. The Buchmanite principles of personal powerlessness and the necessity of divine guidance are embodied in steps 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 11; the principle of confession is embodied in steps 4, 5, and 10; the principle of restitution to those one has harmed is embodied in steps 8 and 9; and the principle of continuance, of continuing to practice the other OGM principles and to carry the message to other “defeated” persons (“alcoholics,” in the steps), is embodied in steps 10 and 12.

To spell out some of these correspondences in more detail: AA inherited the Oxford Group belief that human beings in themselves are powerless and that only submission to God’s will is sufficient to solve human problems. (AA lists only the problem of alcohol, though the underlying belief is identical; the third step, in which one turns one’s “will and . . . li[fe] over to the care of God,” makes this obvious.) It also inherited the belief that God will guide anyone who “listens.” An additional Oxford Group legacy is the belief that it is necessary for human beings to confess their “wrongs” (in AA) or “sins” (in the Oxford Groups); furthermore, both groups employ(ed) both private and public confessions. The Oxford Groups emphasized private confessions from “sinners” to individual “soul surgeons,” and public confessions at “houseparties,” while AA emphasizes private confessions from “pigeons” (newcomers being indoctrinated into the AA program) to “sponsors” (experienced members responsible for indoctrinating individual newcomers), and public confessions at AA meetings.

Another ideological correspondence between AA and the Oxford Groups can be found in their attitude toward recruitment of those who have doubts about their programs. The Oxford Groups encouraged doubters, including agnostics, to pray and to practice “quiet times,” acting “as if” they believed in God. The assumption was that God would make himself known to the supplicant, God having a plan for every human life and being ready to reveal it to anyone who would listen. In AA, the approach to doubters and the assumptions underlying that approach are identical to those of the Oxford Groups. AA even has a prescriptive slogan for newcomers harboring doubts: “Fake it until you make it.”

The result of all this is indoctrination religious indoctrination into the divinely guided “A.A. way of life.” As Bill Wilson himself noted, “Some A.A.s say, ‘I don’t need religion, because A.A. is my religion'” (Wilson, 1988, p. 178). Another of his comments sheds more light on what that religion is:

Nearly every A.A. member comes to believe in and depend upon a higher Power which most of us call God. In A.A. practically no full recovery from alcoholism has been possible without this all-important faith. God, as we understand Him, is the foundation upon which our fellowship rests. (Wilson, 1957, p. 253)

Recall also Wilson’s comments about the effects of working the steps:

So, practicing these Steps, we had a spiritual awakening about which finally there was no question. Looking at those who were only beginning and still doubted themselves, the rest of us were able to see the change setting in. From great numbers of such experiences, we could predict that the doubter who still claimed that he hadn’t got the ‘spiritual angle,’ and who still considered his well-loved A.A. group the higher power, would presently love God and call Him by name. (Wilson, 1953, p. 109)

Finally, the Oxford Group Movement (now Moral Re-Armament, MRA) has recently and inadvertently confirmed that the 12 steps have nothing specifically to do with alcoholism or addictions of any kind, but are, rather, a set of universal religious principles designed to lead to a “God-controlled” life what AA calls the “the A.A. way of life.” In It Started Right There: AA amp; MRA, MRA writer T. Willard Hunter states: “These [12 steps] are the life-changing procedures pioneered by Frank Buchman, developed by Sam Shoemaker, and codified for AA by Bill Wilson. They are here adjusted in only two places . . . for application to the universal human condition.”

These remarks immediately precede a fill-in-the-blanks, generic 12 steps (Hunter, n.d., pp. 10 11).


It is fitting to end this discussion of AA’s religious origins and religious orientation with consideration of the 12 steps, for when those steps were published in the Big Book, AA’s ideology (its “program”) was set in stone. (Anyone familiar with AA will understand how extremely remote the possibility is of any change let alone any substantive change in its program, given the procedural difficulties involved in making changes, and given the reverence in which most AA members hold the steps, Big Book, and Bill Wilson.) Prior to the publication of the Big Book, what was to become AA was part of the Oxford Group Movement, adhered to OGM beliefs, and participated in OGM practices, such as prayer, Bible reading, and public confession at meetings. As we’ve seen, when Bill Wilson wrote the 12 steps, he merely codified the OGM’s central beliefs there is not a single original concept in the steps while giving no credit whatsoever to the Oxford Groups or their founder and leader, Frank Buchman. When AA broke away from the Oxford Group Movement in 1939 for reasons having essentially nothing to do with differences over ideology it retained the central OGM principles as the core of the AA program. It also retained a great many OGM practices, such as prayer, both private and public confession, public witnessing, reading from an “inspired” text at meetings (now the Big Book rather than the Bible), and “carrying this message.” Thus one could well argue that the AA of today not only is clearly a religious group, but for all practical purposes is the Oxford Group Movement targeted at a single group (alcoholics) and marketed under a different brand name.

Repeated assertion that “AA is spiritual, not religious” cannot alter this reality.

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