AA is a spiritual program that avoids aligning itself with any particularly religious group. Individual members may have strong affiliations to a particular belief system, but the organization as a whole professes impartiality. The 12 Step program has been strongly influenced by an evangelical Christian group, but it is open to people of all religious backgrounds.
To non-believers it can appear that AA is a deeply religious organization. It does promote the idea of a higher power that has control over people’s lives. It also encourages members to adapt a code of behavior that has a definite religious feel to it. Alcoholics Anonymous is certainly not anti-religion, but the early members of the group were keen to promote themselves as a spiritual program.
The difference between religion and spirituality can be quite subtle. People may even belong to a particular religion but still refer to themselves as spiritual – they can even say that they are not religious. One way of differentiating the two would be to say that spirituality comes from inside the individual while religion comes from external forces – although there is a lot of debate about this definition.
Spirituality usually refers to an inner path that people follow in search of some type of higher power. The path they take may be highly influenced by the world’s religious teachings, but it will be more of a personal journey. It is typical for spiritual seekers to borrow ideas from the different belief systems and mix these with their own ideas.
Religion is less of a personal journey and more about following an established path. There will usually be the belief that this one path is the best one, and so other paths should be avoided. A religion will provide rules to follow and specific teachings that adherents need to follow.
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were influenced by the Oxford Group. This evangelical movement believed in the complete surrender to the will of Christ. Members were encouraged to regularly take personal inventories looking at their own behavior. They were expected to admit any wrongdoings and make amends. These principles became the basis of the AA 12 Steps.
By the time that Alcoholics Anonymous had released the Big Book in 1939 their program had escaped much of the religious trapping of the Oxford Group. The program emphasized that members could believe in God as they understood it. This meant that people from any religious background could make use of the program. Today even atheists are able to follow the program by substituting God with the power of the group.
Those members who follow the 12 steps of AA are promised a spiritual awakening. This type of wording can trigger up images of angels appearing and loud trumpets sounding off in the sky. The AA program means something different when they talk about spiritual experiences. It doesn’t have to mean anything paranormal or mystical. Instead it refers to the transformation of members over time. They develop a completely new way of dealing with life that leads them to new happiness. To outsiders it may even appear as if something miraculous has happened – they may be stunned of the change of the individual from an alcoholic to a productive citizen.
While AA meetings are open to anyone there are definitely some groups that will have a more religious feel to them than others. This is because each group is given a lot of autonomy so that members can adapt it to their unique requirements. Some groups will read passages from the Bible and say the Lord’s Prayer during the meeting. There can also be pressure on members to accept a specific understanding of the higher power.
Non-believers can feel uncomfortable at AA meetings where there is a particular religious slant. This is not such a problem when people live in a big city because there should be many meetings to choose from. There are even agnostic meeting if people wish to avoid religion altogether. In rural areas it can be harder to avoid the more religious AA meetings – they may be the only show in town.
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