Alcoholics Anonymous is Non-Denominational
Alcoholics Anonymous is not affiliated with any particular religion. However, the program does contain spiritual ideas that may make many atheists feel uncomfortable; in particular the concept of a higher power. It is also true that while the organization as a whole might not be affiliated to any particular religious denomination, there are individual AA groups where there are strong religious overtones.
Some atheists do manage to find a place within the twelve step program, but for others this is not an attractive proposition. There is also the claim that it is not possible to be an atheist and work the twelve steps. This is because so many of these steps require belief in a higher power.
Atheism and the Higher Power
The first hurdle that atheist members of AA need to deal comes in step two of the twelve steps.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
The theist idea of such a higher power is God. The belief of many AA members is that their God is giving them the power to beat their addiction. Atheists are not able to share this idea of a god who is saving them from addiction. This makes it difficult for them to move onto step three which states:
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him
While it may at first glance appear that the twelve steps offer insurmountable obstacles to the atheist there are ways to follow the program without accepting a theist idea of God. This is because AA encourages the member to believe in a higher power as they understand it. This means that the individual is free to interpret this as they wish. Some will view nature as their higher power while others will see it as the power of the group.
In AA there is a lot of talk about spiritual experiences and this can also be off-putting for the atheist. It conjures up images of talking angels and other paranormal activity. The twelfth step mentions having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps.
A closer look at what is meant by spiritual experience in AA can make it more palatable to the non-believer. It is viewed as a change that may happen slowly over time but leads to a transformation in how the individual behaves. It doesn’t have to be considered a magical event but instead something that happens as a result of working the program.
Some members get around the spiritual elements of the AA program by completely ignoring them. There is no obligation to follow the steps or believe in anything. This means that atheists can just attend meetings for support and as a social outlet.
Religious AA Meetings
There are undoubtedly some AA meetings that have more of a religious flavor than others. It can be uncomfortable for the atheist to sit through meetings where there is a lot of talk about God. This isn’t such a big problem in big cities because there will be plenty of meetings to choose from. In a small town it can make things more difficult because the overly-religious group may be all that is available. The atheist then has the option of putting up with the god talk, driving to a bigger city, starting their own meeting, or just giving up on AA altogether.
Mandated AA Meetings for Atheists
One of the most controversial problems for atheists is court mandated attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous. Insisting that atheists participate in this group could be viewed as promoting a religious belief and therefore an infringement of their rights. This view was supported by a ruling by the US Supreme Court when it was ruled wrong for a judge to have coerced an atheist into attending AA.
AA as a Cult
Some people view Alcoholics Anonymous as a type of cult. By attending the meetings the members are pressured into accepting certain ideas about addiction and how it should be cured. They are taught to believe that alcoholism is a disease, and that the only cure for this is god.
Some members will attend these meetings almost every day, and it can appear to others as if they have replaced one addiction with another. It is even claimed that the AA program is a type of brainwashing that is ultimately harmful.
Other Recovery Options for Atheists
Many atheists have no interest in joining Alcoholics Anonymous because of the emphasis on spirituality. There are now plenty of other recovery options that they can choose from such as:
- Rational Recovery is a program where there is no requirement to adopt any spiritual philosophy. This recovery solution also does away with the need to attend meetings because it views such continued support as detrimental.
- SMART Recovery is also non-religious, but they do provide regular meetings for members to attend.
- There are many rehabs that are not inspired by the twelve step movement. Such programs provide the individual with the tools they need to stay sober, and often offer continued support.
- Therapy can work well for people who are trying to build a life away from addiction.