It is sometimes claimed that Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious movement. It is even suggested that AA shares similarities with cults. The basis of these criticisms usually stems from the focus on a higher power in the 12 Steps. This might imply belief in some type of supernatural agent. In reality the members of AA can interpret the term higher power as they see fit. It would probably be fairer to say that it is a spiritual program rather than a religious program. Members include people of almost every religious persuasion. There are also many non-believers who belong to this fellowship.
The founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous were closely related to a Christian evangelical group known as the Oxford Group. This organization was popular during the 1930s, and Bill Wilson attended their meetings in an attempt to beat his alcohol addiction. He did manage to stay sober for six months using their program but then found himself on the verge of relapse. Out of desperation, he decided that the best thing to do would be to try to help another alcoholic. This is considered the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bill Wilson was impressed with the spiritual philosophy of the Oxford Group. Their program involved:
* Belief in God
* Regular and rigorous self-examination in order to monitor character flaws
* Making amends for any wrongdoing
* Admitting one’s faults to at least one other person
The early members of Alcoholics Anonymous created a program that was highly influenced by the Oxford Group. One of the most important changes they made was to put the focus on a higher power rather than the Christian concept of God. This would mean that the program would be acceptable to more people.
God or higher power is mentioned in 6 of the 12 steps. These terms are used interchangeably. The idea of a higher power is the key element of the program, as seen in the following steps:
* Step 2 – We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
* Step 3- We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
* Step 5- We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
* Step 6-_We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character._
* Step 7- We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
* Step 11 – We 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.
The 12 Steps are a recommended program of recovery from alcoholism. There is no obligation for people who attend the meetings to follow these steps – many members only seem to pay lip service to the program. The traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous make clear that the only requirement for memberships is the desire to stop drinking.
The main benefit of using the words higher power is that it cannot be easily defined. This means that members of 12 Step groups can interpret the concept as they wish. It makes it possible for a Christian to follow the steps alongside a Buddhist or even an atheist. Most people interpret higher power as meaning a god, but it does not have to be interpreted this way. It is left up to the individual to decide how they wish to define it. There are no rules except that this power has to be greater than the individual
When people believe in a power greater than themselves it can make life easier. Some of the benefits include:
* People who are attempting to escape a life of addiction can feel overwhelmed by that task. They may not believe that they have the ability to defeat their problem alone. In the AA program they can rely on a power greater than themselves to give them the strength they need.
* When people believe in a higher power they will usually find it easier to forgive other people who have wronged them. It also becomes much easier to let go of resentments.
* The individual will need to face many challenges in recovery. It can be a great source of comfort to believe in a higher power that is providing them with help.
* If the addiction becomes too much to handle, the person can hand it over to their higher power. This can be like lifting a great weight off their shoulders.
* In AA, they encourage members to learn how to let go. This means adopting a completely new approach to life. The individual has faith in their higher power. They come to believe that if they do the right things, then the right things will keep on happening to them. When people develop the ability to let go it brings them peace of mind and contentment.
* Belief in a higher power can give people a sense of purpose in their life. This new approach to life can strengthen their recovery and reduce the risk of relapse. Those who follow a spiritual path claim that it brings a great deal of happiness to their life. Alcohol or drugs is the focus of the addict’s life. When they become sober they need a new focus or their life will lack meaning. A spiritual path can provide them with this focus.
* All spiritual paths encourage the individual to develop as humans. This will usually mean that they become more loving and mentally healthy. Addicts tend to be self-absorbed, but belief in a higher power can help to combat this tendency.
Non-believers can struggle with the concept of a higher power in Alcoholics Anonymous. In the Big Book, there is a whole chapter called We Agnostics, encouraging those who lack religion that they can still work the 12 Steps. This is because there is no obligation to accept the theist idea of a higher power. Atheists can view it as the power of the group, or as an impersonal force in nature. All that is required is that they believe that this power is greater than they are, and that they can benefit from it.
There have been a number of criticisms of the AA use of the term higher power. Some believers feel that it is too vague and that their God should be specifically mentioned. There are also non-believers who would claim that it is a clandestine attempt to encourage people to accept religion. There is also the concern that it disempowers people. The 12 Step members are persuaded that they will be unable to deal with their own problems alone. They are told they have to believe in a higher power if they hope to be saved from their addiction.