Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is showing growing conflict and diversity over the role and meaning of spirituality in its meetings, although the organization is likely to hold together, write psychologists Ernest Kurtz and William White in the current issue of the online journal Religions (No. 6, 2015).
In the last few years there have been feuds between different parties and even expulsions of atheist and agnostic groups criticizing the role of theism and spirituality in AA meetings and among the leadership. Kurtz and White note that differences over spirituality and how members define “God” and a “Higher Power” (as stated in the AA’s 12 steps and other official literature) have existed almost since the organization began in the 1940s.
The diversification has taken shape either through groups splitting from AA and starting their own recovery groups such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety, the Christian Alcoholics Victorious, and the Buddhist Recovery Network, or through internal group formation such as Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics, and more religious and even Christian-oriented AA meetings in movements known as “Primary Purpose” and “Back to Basics.”
Some of these internal divisions are regional. In the American South, lower Midwest and Southwest, “many meeting participants tend to offer an explicitly Christian witness, often mentioning “Jesus Christ” as well as some relationship with ‘God.’ On the coasts, in the northeast and upper Midwest, such effusions are rare, and it is more common for the Serenity Prayer instead of the Lord’s Prayer to close meetings…Some may mention their ‘Higher Power’ or ‘God,’ but rarely as central to their stories.”
The authors clearly see the main conflict being between the “Big Book Fundamentalists,” represented by the “Primary Purpose” and “Back to Basics” movements, who look back “imagined pristine purity” of AA and disparaging the effectiveness of more secular approaches, and the “Modernizing Secularizers.”
The secularizers “not only rejects the heavy religious emphasis of the ‘Back to Basics’ enthusiasts but also are antagonized by even the bare mention of ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps,” sometimes seeking substitutes for the “God” noun and pronoun in the Steps themselves. Both sides have influence in AA, with a new group, We Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAAFT), holding its first national gathering in November, but Kurtz and White see the growing number of non-affiliated younger members as leaning toward the secularizers, even if many are not atheists or agnostics.
It is also the case that in some judicial districts, AA has been prohibited from being considered a requirement for rehabilitation of prisoners and parolees because of its semi-religious nature. Thus the current increase of atheist and agnostic AA groups rebut such claims, although it will likely require another appellate court decision to test that claim. Kurtz and White conclude that the “great majority of AA members will more than likely continue to settle somewhere comfortably in between, generally tolerating the extremes but probably more often than not seeking out groups that better fit their middling instincts.”