Is AA a Religious Program?

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Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people overcome alcoholism and drug addiction since its inception in the mid-1930s. However, the 12 Step model of addiction recovery remains highly controversial. Some people, those who have achieved long-term sobriety in AA and other 12 Step programs, tend to stand by the model and swear by its efficacy. Others, typically those who have either had limited success with the 12 Step model or who have never given it a fair shot, might cling to hangups having to do with religion, God, prayer, or the idea that AA is simply “replacing one addiction for another.” One of the most controversial arguments against AA is that it is a religious program — one that centers around God and requires daily prayer. Unfortunately, this widespread misconception prevents many individuals from giving the 12 Step model a fair shot. It is not uncommon for individuals who suffer from substance use disorders to have relatively traumatic experiences with religion, often dating back to childhood. For this reason, even the mention of “God” can send some running for the door.

Does this deep-seated aversion sound familiar? If so, we suggest learning a little bit more about the difference between religion and spirituality before writing off the program completely. There is a very important distinction to be made, one that could mean the difference between maintaining sobriety and returning to drinking or drug use. If you have additional questions about the specifics of 12 Step programs or if you would like to learn more about treatment options in your area, contact us today.

What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

Alcoholics Anonymous is an international, mutual-aid fellowship, designed to help people of all ages and walks of life overcome substance use disorders and maintain sobriety long-term. The widely popular 12 Step program, more commonly referred to as AA, was initially developed in Akron, Ohio in the mid-1930s by Bill Wilson, a stockbroker, and Dr. Bob, a licensed surgeon. Both men had suffered from severe cases of alcoholism, and they were able to successfully stop drinking after acknowledging alcohol use disorder as a malady of the body, mind, and spirit. They worked closely with other alcoholics, implementing a set of 12 distinct steps that began with an admission of powerlessness and unmanageability. Over the course of the past 90 years, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous has maintained its initial integrity and helped millions of men and women from all around the world overcome alcoholism and drug addiction.

The Difference Between Religion & Spirituality

Many individuals who struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction decidedly keep their distance from AA without investigating it for themselves, solely because of one common misconception — the idea that AA is a religious program. Admittedly, with so many mentions of “God” and “Higher Power,” and with so many seemingly religious prayers woven throughout the AA literature, it is easy to assume that AA is rooted in religion. In reality, 12 Step programs are rooted in spiritual development. There is a major difference between religion and spirituality.

  • Religion typically refers to a specific system of faith and worship, centered around a God or several gods/deities. There are four major religions that account for close to 80% of the entire world population – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Religion tends to refer to an institutionalized belief system, one with little flexibility or room for interpretation.
  • Spirituality is defined as, “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Spirituality revolves around fostering a meaningful connection with something outside of self, and exploring universal themes like love and compassion, wisdom and truth, and altruism.

It is entirely possible for a person to practice spiritual development without being tied to religious practices in any way, shape, or form. While AA encourages group members to begin developing a relationship with a higher power, there are no rules as to what this process looks like.

The Concept of a Higher Power

Developing a personal conception of a power greater than self is an important part of the AA philosophy, but there are no hard and fast rules regarding what this higher power should be. It can be the ocean, it can be love, it can be — as some say — a doorknob. The main idea behind the higher power concept is that we are not the end all be all; self-reliance has not gotten us very far in the past, and if we want to overcome alcoholism or drug addiction we should acknowledge the fact that we can’t do so on our own. Will-power only gets us so far. AA is open to people of all belief systems, as well as agnostics — and even atheists. Because the Big Book (the main piece of text in AA) was written in 1935, a lot of the references are outdated; even somewhat polarizing. We recommend taking the literature with a grain of salt and keeping an open mind. If you don’t like something you read, you can essentially “re-write” it in your own words, so it resonates and makes sense to you.

Spiritual Development

Spiritual development is a fundamental part of the 12 Step program model — but what exactly does it look like? When you think of spiritual development, you might think of a yogi sitting peacefully atop a mountain, deep in meditation, fostering an immovable connection with the world around him. In reality, spirituality doesn’t have to be quite so intense. When you begin your personal journey of spiritual development you will have the opportunity to decide what this means for you. Maybe you will take up meditation, choose to spend more time in nature, spend an hour quietly journaling in the morning, or explore different avenues of faith. One of the most beautiful gifts of sobriety is the opportunity to discover who you are and what makes you tick. It often helps to shift your perspective — rather than viewing spiritual development as a chore or a hurdle to jump over, try looking at it as an opportunity to get to know yourself a little bit better.


Making the decision to reclaim your life and begin working towards long-term sobriety is one of the most monumental and challenging decisions you will ever make. Once you make this decision, the next step is reaching out for help. Fortunately, as soon as you do, we will be there to guide you through the initial steps of the process. When it comes to getting sober, an important first step is ensuring you go through a safe, medically supervised detoxification. The symptoms associated with substance withdrawal can be dangerous. If you or someone you love is in need of detox or other treatment services, we are happy to help point you in the right direction.

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