Is a belief in God a prerequisite for AA or other 12 steps programs?

Although AA and other notable 12 step organizations maintain they are merely spiritually based organizations without mandating a belief in a conventional God, many are skeptical; and recent court decisions have found with plaintiffs arguing that court mandated AA therapy violates the separation of church and state enshrined within the constitution.

The fact is that when AA came to prominence in the early 1900’s, the worldview of the majority of Americans differed substantially from the more cosmopolitan and varied views that better reflect the beliefs of today’s Americans; and when you consider the context in which the organization was created, it’s remarkable that any attempt was made to limit the Christianity so prominent in its creation, and to call for mere spirituality as a way to ensure equal access to the program for all.

Whatever you call it though, AA isn’t likely to change, and with 80 years of history and success behind it, nor should it be required to. One of the cornerstones of the AA program is a belief in, and a submission to, a higher power; and an acceptance of powerlessness over addiction before that higher power. This higher power is prayed to for strength and guidance, and an admission of character faults and transgressions is made to this higher power. Whether you call it God or something else, without a belief in something greater than yourself, AA or any of the other 12 steps programs doesn’t offer much of value.

So without a belief in God, does AA offer any hope towards recovery?

It depends. The necessity of a belief in something greater than yourself proves an insurmountable barrier to access for many, and equally, many who have no traditional belief in god or religion find a way to work within the system, and find a power acceptable to their internal beliefs that allows for success and sobriety within the program. There are a great many agnostics and even atheists that have been helped by this seemingly "God" centered program, and if they can find help through AA, maybe anyone can.

  • Some common suggestions for people grappling with an inability to submit to a higher power are to consider the group itself, and the strength offered by the fellowship of alcoholics as the higher power. Although not a higher power in the traditional sense, the group of AA members does offer much of the same support and guidance as is called for in a belief in a higher power.
  • Alternatively, although many do not believe in any form of traditional god, there are undeniably powers larger than us in operation within the universe; and whatever power makes the flowers bloom, the birds sing, and the stars circle in the heavens can sometimes be used as a guiding force for people grappling with personal battles.
  • Another recommended approach is to use the power and guidance of a loved ancestor. Whether or not your dead relative resides in a Judeo Christian heaven, or in some altogether different form, their "spirit" lives on at the very least within memories, and some recovering addicts have found that using the guidance of a dead relative can supplant a more traditional requirement for a belief in a God.

For some, an inability to authentically use the forces of a power greater than themselves in a recovery limits the benefits possible within any 12 steps communities; and for others, even without a traditional belief system in a higher power, AA works very well.

Many who don’t believe in God in a traditional sense have found some acceptable internal belief in a higher power that allows for their continued sobriety and participation within the AA community and within the fellowship of other addicts in recovery. My suggestion would be to give it a try, and don’t allow a perceived conflict of metaphysical beliefs to limit your potential involvement in an organization that has helped so many. Many AA members have found ways to work within the system, and many of these did not at first feel that AA could ever offer them effective support due to their disbelief in a traditional God.

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Although AA and other notable 12 step organizations maintain they are merely spiritually based organizations without mandating a belief in a conventional God, many are skeptical; and recent court decisions have found with plaintiffs arguing that court mandated AA therapy violates the separation of church and state enshrined within the constitution.

The fact is that when AA came to prominence in the early 1900’s, the worldview of the majority of Americans differed substantially from the more cosmopolitan and varied views that better reflect the beliefs of today’s Americans; and when you consider the context in which the organization was created, it’s remarkable that any attempt was made to limit the Christianity so prominent in its creation, and to call for mere spirituality as a way to ensure equal access to the program for all.

Whatever you call it though, AA isn’t likely to change, and with 80 years of history and success behind it, nor should it be required to. One of the cornerstones of the AA program is a belief in, and a submission to, a higher power; and an acceptance of powerlessness over addiction before that higher power. This higher power is prayed to for strength and guidance, and an admission of character faults and transgressions is made to this higher power. Whether you call it God or something else, without a belief in something greater than yourself, AA or any of the other 12 steps programs doesn’t offer much of value.

So without a belief in God, does AA offer any hope towards recovery?

It depends. The necessity of a belief in something greater than yourself proves an insurmountable barrier to access for many, and equally, many who have no traditional belief in god or religion find a way to work within the system, and find a power acceptable to their internal beliefs that allows for success and sobriety within the program. There are a great many agnostics and even atheists that have been helped by this seemingly "God" centered program, and if they can find help through AA, maybe anyone can.

  • Some common suggestions for people grappling with an inability to submit to a higher power are to consider the group itself, and the strength offered by the fellowship of alcoholics as the higher power. Although not a higher power in the traditional sense, the group of AA members does offer much of the same support and guidance as is called for in a belief in a higher power.
  • Alternatively, although many do not believe in any form of traditional god, there are undeniably powers larger than us in operation within the universe; and whatever power makes the flowers bloom, the birds sing, and the stars circle in the heavens can sometimes be used as a guiding force for people grappling with personal battles.
  • Another recommended approach is to use the power and guidance of a loved ancestor. Whether or not your dead relative resides in a Judeo Christian heaven, or in some altogether different form, their "spirit" lives on at the very least within memories, and some recovering addicts have found that using the guidance of a dead relative can supplant a more traditional requirement for a belief in a God.

For some, an inability to authentically use the forces of a power greater than themselves in a recovery limits the benefits possible within any 12 steps communities; and for others, even without a traditional belief system in a higher power, AA works very well.

Many who don’t believe in God in a traditional sense have found some acceptable internal belief in a higher power that allows for their continued sobriety and participation within the AA community and within the fellowship of other addicts in recovery. My suggestion would be to give it a try, and don’t allow a perceived conflict of metaphysical beliefs to limit your potential involvement in an organization that has helped so many. Many AA members have found ways to work within the system, and many of these did not at first feel that AA could ever offer them effective support due to their disbelief in a traditional God.

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