AA Spiritual and Religious

By Steven K.

It is quite often stated by AA members that the fellowship is “spiritual not religious.”  I do not think that this statement is entirely accurate and would suggest that in a broad sense it can be validly described as both. It can certainly be related to in this way by individual members if they are inclined to do so.

AA philosophy, its literature and program of recovery, are strongly influenced by Christian principles and ideas that were inherited from the evangelical Oxford Group. Bill W and other founder members of AA, first got sober through this Christian organisation and practised its tenets and then later split from the Oxford Group to form their own meetings that were specifically for alcoholics. Bill W in consultation with the other early members of AA, developed Oxford Group principles and beliefs into the 12 Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA’s program and ‘traditions’ are also influenced by other disciplines and ideas eg., the Medical Model of Alcoholism, liberal democratic principles and the pragmatic philosophy of William James, the so called father of American psychology.

It only requires a brief look at AA’s basic text to establish the strong influence of Christian ideas and the word God, or references to it, is mentioned literally hundreds of times throughout the Big Book. Although it is stated in the Steps and elsewhere in the text that it can be a God of one’s own understanding, there is a strong suggestion of its Christian characteristics eg., “He”, “All Powerful”, “All Knowing” and can intervene in one’s life. Prayer is also suggested a lot! The Christian concept of ‘salvation’ or being saved by God, is fundamental to the 12 Steps.

It is true to say that AA is not connected to Christianity or any other religious organisation in a formal way and is independent from any such institution. However, this does not mean that the fellowship in its own right is not broadly religious in nature. Several American court decisions (1) have decided, having studied the literature and AA practices, that the fellowship is religious in nature.

Having stated the above, AA’s liberal and pragmatic principles allow its members to relate to the literature and 12 Steps in a subjective and individual way, which can include rational and humanistic ideas and values. Spirituality can be understood in a rational sense in terms of phenomena such as love, morality, beauty, human consciousness, our sense of awe and wonder towards the mystery of existence and the ineffable, things that are more than purely material.

It can also include belief in the literal spirituality associated with religion, such as belief in supernatural beings, spirits, souls and the afterlife. My relationship with AA‘s program of recovery is in terms of the former rational understanding of spirituality.

Considering myself to be a humanist and agnostic, why am I a member of a broadly religious fellowship? The answer is several reasons. Firstly, it helped me to stop drinking and live a sober way of life and continues to do so. Secondly, there are aspects of AA philosophy and values that I share with so called more religious members, such as a commitment to sobriety, practising moral inventory and virtue as part of my recovery, lifestyle or way of being, and a desire to be of service to others, particularly the still suffering alcoholic.

I very much value the opportunity to give and receive support and help that the fellowship of AA provides to its members. AA’s philosophy inspires this type of enlightened altruism, giving its fellowship a special quality and atmosphere, which is characterised by an attitude of love and service. For me, God is a metaphor for good or love within humanity and it’s this healing force that works within the fellowship of AA, through its members.

So, it is these practices and values, my relationship in a rational sense with spirituality, that I share with other members of AA, not necessarily their more religious or literal beliefs in terms of the 12 Steps or AA philosophy. My point being there is plenty in a religious fellowship for the non-believer, as well as those who adopt a more literal, supernatural understanding of spirituality.

As suggested in the first paragraph of this essay Alcoholics Anonymous, the fellowship and program, can certainly be related to in a religious manner by its members. An example being the so called “back to basics” movement within the fellowship, who interpret the Big Book in a very literal way and whose focus tends towards God and the Christian ideas in the literature. There is a variety in this type of approach towards the Big Book and 12 Steps by different groups and members, but all share a literal and fundamentalist style of interpretation with the aim of recreating very early AA or Oxford Group principles.

However, AA literature, the 12 Steps and in particular the 12 ‘Traditions’, contain many liberal principles and suggestions in terms of relating to the Big Book and the program of recovery. Three very important sentences for me in this respect are on p.47, 3rd edition of the Big Book, “When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.” Members are allowed to relate to the 12 Steps and literature in a way that resonates with them. The result of this liberal freedom within AA philosophy is a diversity in terms of belief and practice by its members. There exists in AA a spectrum of belief and interpretations, from the strong atheist non-believer to the fundamentalist Christian and everything else in between.

The fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous can be legitimately described as broadly religious and also spiritual in nature, in my opinion, but its liberal principles and suggestions allow its individual members to relate to it in a non-religious, humanistic sense if they so wish.

(1) See ‘The Courts, AA and Religion’, at AA Agnostica, to read a detailed article about the stated court case decisions.


“Some readers may take issue with my rational/natural interpretation and use of the word spiritual. I think there are very valid arguments for not using the term in this respect, and that a more specific use of language would be a better communication of my humanistic understanding of recovery principles and experiences.

However, there’s the point of view that the scientific, breaking down of everything to its component parts is too reductionist and doesn’t fully convey the greater sum of those parts. Certain aspects of human experience are difficult to put into words and seem greater than there component parts, and vague words like spirituality are an attempt to communicate this greater quality. I do think that due to its various meanings and associations the term spiritual can be misleading and a better umbrella word for the principles and experiences of a natural understanding of recovery is warranted.

I don’t know what that word should be, and so for the foreseeable future may still be tempted at times to use the word spiritual in an attempt to communicate the ineffable quality of certain aspects of human experience, that do seem more than purely material.”

About the Author, Steven K.

Steve K has been a member of AA for 24 years and lives in Cheshire, which is in the N. West region of England. He would describe himself as a humanist/agnostic. His home group is the Macclesfield Saturday morning AA group and he regularly chairs the meeting. He has a background in advice and counselling work, mainly in the areas of mental health and social welfare law. Steve enjoys swimming and going to the gym regularly at the local Leisure Centre and hill walking in the Cheshire countryside.

He’s recently started a recovery blog, 12stepphilosophy, and has self-published an eBook entitled “The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K.” The second edition is available at all the traditional online outlets and can be accessed as both an eBook and a paperback at Lulu.


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Fred S
Fred S
5 years ago

Thank you, Steven K, for your well presented and enjoyable article. The growing concern with the term “spiritual” and objection to its use among AA atheists, agnostics and free thinkers (AAFTs) are disturbing to me because I have a clear and definite understanding of the term which I have used for all of my 62 years, and I actually like the word itself; I would not have it taken from our vocabulary. In chapter two of their book The Alternative 12 Steps authors Martha Cleveland, Ph.D. and Arlys G. discuss the word quite effectively, having chosen it for use in… Read more »

Steve K
5 years ago
Reply to  Fred S

Thanks Fred for your comments, they are a very useful addition to my article. I know what I mean when using the word spiritual and maybe the solution is to communicate our own understanding more clearly when sharing with others, particularly newcomers, so they don’t misinterpret.

One’s sense and understanding of spirituality is clearly a subjective experience for each person, including those who don’t sense or understand it. This diversity of experience and viewpoint represents the fellowship I want to belong to and requires us to be tolerant and accepting of each others differences. Thanks again. Steve

Bob K.
Bob K.
5 years ago

It sometimes seems to me that AA gathers together religious people, who are anti-religious. The implications are obvious in the hackneyed adage “AA is spiritual (mmmm yummy, warm fuzzy), not religious (yuck, boo, nasty, bad).” Of course, no such giant chasm exists between the two, but unpleasant memories of church and untenable sex rules haunt the mind, while spirituality is NEW, and doesn’t tie up one’s Sunday mornings. Religion has a more general meaning, apart from the specifics of Baptists and Methodists, and AA is saturated with that type – God this, God that – “no human power,” don’t you… Read more »

John H
John H
5 years ago

Dear Steven, This is a quite rational/civilized approach to a state of affairs that provokes the non-believer to despair on occasion when confronted by the central fallacy (the outright misrepresentation) in the Big Book and elsewhere where this vague and meaningless term is clearly coded as a mask for overtly religious concepts and codified, clearly Christian, belief. Personally I have chosen never to make a compromise with this term and to say, very clearly, that the driving concept for me has always been the idea of the program as a mechanism for behavior modification based on sharing and identification brought… Read more »

John S
5 years ago

Thank you Steven. I enjoyed this beautifully written piece. The line in the Big Book about not letting our prejudice of spiritual terms deter us from asking ourselves what they mean to us, has turned out to be the key to how I approach the AA program as an atheist. I rewrote the steps in my own language and I will more than likely rewrite them again as my understanding changes over time. Others in my group have done the same and I think it’s a great exercise. We get a lot of newcomers to our group, people who have… Read more »

Tommy H
Tommy H
5 years ago

Well put, Stephen.