Religious Characteristics of A.A.

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-060 Religious Characteristics of A.A., by Irving Peter Gellman THE SOBER ALCOHOLIC, 1964


by Irving Peter Gellman

When discussing their initial contact with A.A. some members indicate that they were apprehensive about the nature and extent of the religious requirements for affiliation. The following comments typify this concern: "I expected a lot of Bible reading and hymn singing;" "I thought you were some kind of fanatics;" or "I had the idea that you were a bunch of Holy Rollers." Such statements usually elicit laughter, implying that misconceptions of the religious aspects of the fellowship is fairly common.

Officially, and vigorously, A.A. denies that it is a religious movement. It steadfastly maintains that it is a spiritual and not a religious program. The precise distinction is seldom articulated, although considerable discussion concerning this point occurs at meetings and elsewhere. Despite the disavowal of a formal theological identity there is little doubt that A.A. does manifest many characteristics of a valid religious system. Its historical origin and contemporary organization lend support to such an identity.

Alcoholics Anonymous was incubated in the original Oxford Group Movement, now known as Moral Rearmament founded by Dr. Frank Buchman, a Lutheran minister, in 1908. Buchman was visiting England at that time, when he had a "vision" which presumably caused him to alter his personality by removing such basic defects as selfishness, dishonesty, and resentments. He decided to return to the United States to spread the word of his "revelation." Meeting with only limited success, in 1920 he returned to England where he devoted his energies to converting the undergraduates of Cambridge University. In 1921 he extended his' efforts to Oxford University where he concentrated on cultivating the sons of upper-class families. It was during this period that the movement took the name Oxford Group, stirring up quite a controversy in so doing. Considerable antagonism was aroused by the implied association with Oxford University and by the confusion with the earlier Oxford Movement of Cardinal Neuman.

Success came slowly to Buchman, but it did come at last. In 1924 he returned to the United States and focused his attention on students of such upper-class institutions as Yale and Harvard. Returning to England he was able to convert a number of prominent persons. Once again Buchman sailed for the United States, this time with an entourage of sixty converts to bolster his campaign. There was nothing second-rate about the organization which was being established with headquarters in no less a place than the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Buchman's influence grew rapidly and he was able to procure the personal endorsement of several respected clergymen.

By 1938 Buchman's position was so well entrenched that the doctrine of Moral Rearmament was introduced for the purpose of resolving all domestic and international conflicts. Its adherents were increasing in an accelerated fashion, partly due to massive promotional campaigns in the United States and throughout the world.

A.A. owes much of its basic doctrine to the Oxford Group principles which set forth the following fundamentals:

1. Men are sinners.
2. Men can be changed.
3. Confession is a prerequisit to change.
4. The changed soul has direct access to God.
5. The age of miracles has returned.
6. Those who have changed must change others.

A member of the Oxford Group must fulfill the Four Absolutes prescribed by Buchman. These are Absolute Purity, Absolute Honesty, Absolute Love, and Absolute Unselfishness. One must turn his life over to God, and God will then instruct the person concerning his future behavior. This becomes a personal, individual experience in which each disciple is changed and is subject to the will of God.

In order to reach the Four Absolutes the individual passes through five steps. First, one surrenders to God. Second, one listens to God's instructions which vary according to the needs of each individual. The third step consists of "checking guidance." The member discusses the instructions he has received from God with an older, more experienced Grouper who is able to confirm the reliability of the message. This is necessary because occasionally the new member may misinterpret God's instructions and the older member is able to correct such errors. The fourth step involves implementing God's will by making amends to other people for any harm done to them in previous times. The last step is the achievement of the ideals of the Group and sharing them with other people. This may require a kind of reciprocal confession between a new member and a Grouper. The older member reports his own shortcomings and failings at which point the new person may join in a similar recitation. When the newcomer participates in the confessional it is felt that he has been converted. The essence of this procedure has been incorporated into the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Buchman availed himself of modern public relations techniques with full implementation of social-psychological methods of propagandization. This included the use of popular slogans such as:


The utilization of somewhat similar slogans has become an integral part of the A.A. system.

There is extensive reference to the concept of God in Alcoholics Anonymous. However, emphasis is placed upon individual definition and acceptance of the meaning of God. The Third Step is most often cited in this connection. It reads, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him." In the Second Step reference is made to a "...Power greater than ourselves..." The Fifth and Sixth Steps also make reference to God, and the Seventh Step states, "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."

It is obvious that, for the most part, members identify with the traditional Christian concept of God. However, it is suggested that any symbolic representation of a Higher Power may be substituted if an individual so desires. The group itself is frequently proposed as a form of Higher Power, which may be of help in achieving and maintaining sobriety.

In his volume Religion in Contemporary Culture, Benson devotes an entire chapter to the subject of the power factors in religion. He offers an analysis of the functions of the Higher Power in Alcoholics Anonymous and notes:

"The effectiveness of the higher power does not necessitate a particular form which the system of power takes. Members of A.A. turn to God as they understand Him. For some members the higher power is thought of merely as A.A., the power of the group which illustrates the type of higher power Durkeim found in religion. Others think of the higher power in terms of the power of human ideals, a concept similar to that of Dewey. Still others see in service to their fellow man the power which makes possible their recovery from alcoholism. Many members merely accept orthodox ideas which have come to them from religious denominations without fully defining what these mean.

This is reiterated in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions with the following advice to the alcoholic: "You can, if you wish, make A.A. itself your Higher Power. Here's a very large group of people who have solved their alcohol problem. In this respect they are certainly a power greater than you who have not even come close to the solution. Surely you can have faith in them."

Harry M. Tiebout, a prominent psychiatrist, has this to say about the nature of religion in A.A.:

"...The central effect, therefore of Alcoholics Anonymous is to develop in the person a spiritual state which will serve as a direct neutralizing force upon the egocentric elements in the character of the alcoholic.... It is my belief that the therapeutic value of the A.A. approach arises from its use of religious or spiritual force to attack the fundamental narcissism of the alcoholic. In other words this group relies upon an emotional force, religion, to achieve an emotional result..."

Unquestionably many members of A.A. believe that a religious or spiritual force has been the principal factor in their recovery from active alcoholism. The achievement of sobriety is often referred to as a "miracle."

In a volume dealing with religion and Alcoholics Anonymous, a Protestant minister, G. Aiken Taylor, says:

"A.A., of course, is neither religion nor an adequate substitute for true religion. It doesn't try to be....Those who know him best see it only as a living "parable" within which both liabilities and assets are religiously meaningful. A.A. represents possibly the high-water mark of a practicing "psychology of religious experience."

Taylor, of course, speaks from the theological point of view and bases his evaluation of the religious aspects of A.A. on its approximation to orthodox Christianity. The major part of his analysis deals with Alcoholics Anonymous from this orientation and demonstrates many similarities between the principles of A.A. and Christian theology. He also points out some areas of discrepancy between A.A. and conventional Christianity.

"To all practical purposes, official A.A. limits its concern to this life; Christianity notes that men die. A.A. frankly admits that people are imperfect; Christianity claims to know why, and relates man's imperfection to an absolute Norm and Authority. A.A. declares that men and women need the help of a power greater than themselves; Christianity believes that the very nature of men and women makes it necessary to talk about some preliminary matters - such as forgiveness - before you can talk about help. A.A. talks about a Supreme Being; Christianity says, Yes there is a Supreme Being, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ..."

"A.A. needs to realize that the Scriptures, the Sacraments and the Sabbath are not trivial; the Church, on the other hand, could use proof that God accompanies man to his place of business six days a week. A.A. should remember that besides the present there is eternity; the Church should remember that besides eternity there is the present."

However, the vital issue in the present analysis is not the degree to which A.A. does or does not resemble Christianity. Our object, rather, is to describe those characteristics of Alcoholics Anonymous which justifiably establish it as a religious movement. Benson Comments, "Religion is so complex and variable that the problem of establishing a classification of types of religious organization has been a keen challenge... and has proved incapable of fulfillment."

For the purpose of this presentation we need not enter into a detailed discussion of the sociology of religion. We concur with Nottingham who says:

"From the point of view of the sociologist...religion may be regarded as a cultural tool by means of which man has been able to accommodate himself to his experiences in his total environment; the latter includes himself, his fellow group members, the world of nature and that which is felt by him to transcend them all. It is this last, the direction of human thought, feeling and action to things which man feels to be beyond his ordinary everyday experience with himself, his fellows, and the natural world, this is, the sacred - that constitutes, we believe, the very core of religion."

The first phase of a religious movement is frequently dominated by its principal architect, the charismatic leader. A successful founder must have a compelling personality and the power to attract and hold followers. The history of A.A. indicates that Bill W., and to a lesser extent Doctor Bob, have filled this role admirably.

Then, as Benson points out:

"A social or religious movement cannot long survive on enthusiasm alone. It must be organized to defend itself against opposition, to perpetuate itself as a stable institution. It must develop a clear-cut ideology which serves as the basis of common understanding of the aims, ideas and assumptions of the movement. It must also develop a step-by-step program for bringing its objectives about."

"...As part of the system of social control in the movement, procedures are developed for educating or indoctrinating followers or prospective members."

One need only review the entire development of Alcoholics Anonymous to be impressed with the manner in which it has followed the design outlined above. Even more dramatic is the A.A. commitment to another prerequisite of a religious movement.

"Most religious movements have as one of their cardinal aims the bringing of a new way of life to those who are not yet converted."

The Twelfth Step is an indication of the extent to which A.A. is dedicated to converting active alcoholics to a new way of life. It is concerned with "carrying the message" to other alcoholics and is considered to be one of the most important activities in the fellowship. A.A. maintains that it is a program of attraction, not promotion. This signifies that, theoretically, the movement does not recruit followers but that active alcoholics are induced to seek out the fellowship. Nevertheless, once the problem drinker has requested assistance every effort is extended to "convert" this inebriate to the A.A. way of life. It is also obvious that A.A. is the beneficiary of considerable favorable publicity which provides it with an excellent public image and enhances its program of attraction. Once drawn into the movement, the alcoholic assumes the role of a novitiate or, in A.A. terminology, becomes a "pigeon," "baby," or "newcomer." Then the full process of socialization or indoctrination commences.

Nottingham proposes the following elements as constituting the essence of religion:

1. The idea of the sacred.
2. The emotionally charged attitudes associated with the sacred.
3. The beliefs and practices that both express and re-enforce these attitudes.
4. The sharing of these beliefs and practices by a group of worshipers, who represent a community marked by common moral values.

The above paradigm provides a useful frame of reference for our further analysis of the religious aspects of the A.A. fellowship.

1. THE IDEA OF THE SACRED has its complement in A.A. sacred persons, objects, and entities. The founders Bill W. and Dr. Bob, are revered in the movement.

The first A.A. clubhouse in the world, known as the Old 24th Street Clubhouse, has become an international shrine. In early 1960 the property on which the building stood at 334 1/2 West 24th Street, New York City, was appropriated for a new housing project. A three-day farewell observance was arranged and the small structure was disassembled and reconstructed one block away at 440 West 23rd Street.

The program for the farewell meetings best describes the attitude of the A.A. members toward the shrine.

"It is undisputed that The Old 24th Street Clubhouse has a unique spot in the hearts of members of A.A., not only in the United States but in foreign countries as well.

For almost twenty years, it has been the source of rehabilitation for thousands. It has served the program well, indeed. It has been the home of General Service Headquarters, has witnessed the beginning of Intergroup and Grapevine Magazine and it provided a tiny room that served as home for Lois and Bill during the lean years of the early forties.

Today finds it still a center of constantly increasing activities. It serves as Headquarters for the General Service Conference Committee of the Southeastern District of New York and provides a forum for sixteen A.A. meetings a week.

It serves as a Mecca for A.A. visitors from all over the world, who walk through the "Last Mile," visit upstairs, see Bill's room (kept intact), sign the guest book and never fail to be awed by the warm humble atmosphere that embraces them.

Now, this cradle of A.A. is facing the problem of moving. Its present site is marked for demolition to make way for a new building project and the chorus of hopes from the thousands that the Clubhouse should never get away from A.A. has echoed throughout the program for years, and has presently taken the form of "Save the Historic Old Clubhouse as a Living Landmark for the Future."

The concept of God or The Higher Power, discussed previously, is an important characteristic of the sacred in A.A. Alcoholics Anonymous, "The Big Book," is in effect the bible of the fellowship. Passages from the book are read at meetings and the scripture is accepted as the final word on various issues. The volume is always prominently displayed at A.A. sessions, usually on the lectern from which the members speak to the assemblage.

Other sacred items are the A.A. symbol, which may also be worn in the form of a pin; A.A. slogans which are displayed in the meeting room; The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions which usually appear on some form of scroll; and the Serenity Prayer which is printed on a small plastic card.

2. THE EMOTIONALLY CHARGED ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE SACRED. This is essentially an inherent characteristic of the sacred. It signifies feelings of respect, awe, and reverence which members maintain toward those elements of the fellowship discussed above.

3. THE BELIEFS AND PRACTICES THAT BOTH EXPRESS AND RE-ENFORCE THE ATTITUDES TOWARD THE SACRED. This aspect of religion pertains to the rituals and ceremonies of the movement. The most important of these is the A.A. meeting, which in this context may be described as a devotional service. The group takes on the features of a congregation which usually conducts such services twice weekly (the open and closed meeting). These sessions most frequently take place in church buildings, commonly Roman Catholic or some Protestant denomination. This serves to enhance the sacred nature of the proceedings.

The main feature of the meeting have already been described in the chapter dealing with A.A. activities. The resemblance to a religious service is apparent. The reading of the A.A. preamble; the preaching of a portion of the "Big Book;" the confessionals; the "conversion;" the taking up of a collection; the veneration of the A.A. movement; the celebration of a member's "birthday" or "anniversary;" the commemoration of the founding date of the group; and the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the conclusion of every service are all indicative of the ceremonial affirmation of the A.A. faith.

Carrying the message by means of the Twelfth Step call further augments the religious fervor of the fellowship. Proselytizing becomes the function of all members with respect to active alcoholics who would like to be saved. Each member in a sense acts as a missionary.

4. THE SHARING OF THESE BELIEFS AND PRACTICES BY A GROUP OF WORSHIPERS WHO REPRESENT A COMMUNITY MARKED BY COMMON MORAL VALUES. Fundamentally, this pertains to the emergence of a religious system. A.A. cannot be classified as either a denomination or a sect nor does it have the characteristics of a cult. Having passed through the first stage of development dominated by the charismatic founder, A.A. is now in the second phase of its growth in terms of a religious movement. It has emerged as a church which may be defined as the formal organization of a group of worshipers who share common and defined beliefs and rituals concerning the sacred objects and entities they revere. Nottingham notes:

"In this second phase, which is often precipitated by the advent of a second generation of believers, qualifications for membership are made more explicit and the lines of authority in the organization are more clearly drawn. Moreover, beliefs about the sacred person and mission of the founder are formulated as official theologies and creeds and a cult of the founder involving formal acceptance of the beliefs embodied in such creeds not infrequently supersedes a more spontaneous, personal adherence to his teachings. Furthermore, religious practices . ..gradually develop into formally prescribed rituals. If a movement successfully survives the second stage, the third is characteristically one of continued expansion and diversification. The movement becomes established and takes on a variety of organizational forms.....At this stage a religious movement confronts the danger of becoming a victim of its own success!"

This is descriptive of A.A. The dangers inherent in the transition to the third stage should not be overlooked by the fellowship.


The Alcoholic….and Alcoholics Anonymous William James and Alcoholics Anonymous

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