4 Reasons Why AA is Religious and Not Spiritual
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know the difference between religious and spiritual. I know what people mean when they make that distinction. By spiritual, they mean something like a deep, unmediated connection to the universe and a sense of their place in it. And by religious they mean a that this connection to the universe has been corrupted by human mediation and codification.
I’m also not making a judgment about whether or not spirituality is real or correct – if you’re religious (and object to AA on the grounds that it betrays your beliefs), you shouldn’t take offense to my definitions. I’m just saying that I know what people mean, I’m going use that universal understanding to say why AA is not spiritual, but religious.
To see a world in a grain of sand…
There is nothing about spirituality that requires an acknowledgment of a Higher Power of any sort. Many people who consider themselves spiritual see themselves as an integral part of the universe – everything is a reflection of the whole, even you. Not every spiritually-minded person believes this, but the thing about spirituality is that you’re pretty much free to decide on that for yourself. Not in AA. In AA there is a distinctly ordered cosmology which has a Higher Power, and, as they say, you’re not it. Not only is there a power greater than yourself, but you cannot work the program without accepting that. Your access to this Power is mediated through the 12-step code of spiritual awakening.
A rose by any other name…
I’ve made this point so many times before, but I can’t seem to say it enough: A name is a bone. It’s nothing. It’s an illusion of choice. So, you can call your Higher Power whatever you want. How does that make the essence of this Higher Power different from any other AA member’s? Some spiritually-minded AA member may call her Higher Power her Guardian Angel. Another “agnostic” sort might say Plate Tectonics. And a traditionalist might say God. But whatever you call it, it must do exactly what every other AAs Higher Power does. For instance, Plate Tectonics must be able to care about you. It must be able to care for your will. It must have a will. And it must have a will for you. It must know the difference between human faults and faults in the earth. And it must be, if not willing, at least able to remove them from you and willing to consider it. It must have the time and inclination to listen to your confession. And agree that it should hear this. It must be conscious, which would facilitate Conscious Contact. Not all Higher Powers do these things. The Christian God, for instance, gave people free will. He doesn’t take backsies. He expects you to honor and celebrate that gift, not denigrate it and give it back (“Thanks, but no thanks.”). AA has a very specific and unique God, with describable characteristics. Name it whatever you want.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only of knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out.
What does sobriety mean in AA? Sobriety is a state of both physical and spiritual purity: you don’t pollute yourself with potions or emotions. In the real world, AA’s definition of sobriety doesn’t mean anything (neither does their definition of alcoholic – but that’s another subject). It has nothing to do with personal well-being and self-efficacy. It has to do with abstinence and adherence to the program. Why? Here’s why: Because any mind-altering substance or rebellious emotion will interfere with your contact with your Higher Power. If AA is so spiritual, then how can it dictate how you make contact with your Higher Power? Yeah, it can’t, unless it knows your Higher Power better than you do. Whatever you call it.
Anger is but one letter away from danger.
As I mentioned, the definition of religion is spirituality corrupted through mediation and codification. There is nothing more abhorrent to spirit than aphorisms, which are only mediated, codified, and stagnated spirit. The opposite of creativity and responsibility. There is no better proof of the spiritual wrangling of AA members than the fact that, when they address any criticism of their program, they always start with “AA is a fellowship of men and women…” carry on with the “suggestions” and end with “Why are you so angry?” If you can find any religion on Earth with more aphorisms than AA, I will eat my hat. Even Christians don’t fuss around too much with the Commandments or the Beatitudes (they really should more). The plain fact is that if you answer every presentation of vast possibility with a bumper sticker slogan, you are not spiritual. You are religious. Every time you say, “It works if you work it!” your soul dies a little. There is absolutely no way around that.
To sum up, AA is religious because, if you want to get well, you don’t get to decide what “well” means for you; you don’t get to decide your place in the universe, the nature of your Higher Power, or how you contact it, and you think and speak in cliches. If your definition of “spiritual” is all about exuberance, creativity, agency, and personal responsibility, then you’re going to have to add a major dose of cognitive dissonance to your understanding in order to work a good program.