Spiritual? Religious? Go figure.

Making a decision to go to your first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is a major step. Whatever you’ve heard about it—whether you have a friend who goes, you’ve seen it on TV, learned about it in rehab—it is going to be an experience like nothing else you’ve ever had a chance to partake in. The reason for this is that, despite AA meetings maintaining certain structures through readings, announcements, and a particular format (Speaker meeting vs. open sharing, steps discussion, etc.), it is still something that can get completely unpredictable. I’m not saying this to scare you—I’m simply pointing out the fact AA meetings are run by people who assert that they belong to an organization that is not an organization and has no official membership requirements, other than the desire to stop drinking.

I won’t get into the intricacies of “organization that is not an organization,” but I do want to focus on one major and important aspect of AA: Language.

Perhaps it will be at your first meeting, or maybe it’ll take a few more before you realize that there’s something extra to know about those meetings—mainly how they call themselves “spiritual.” AA is not a religious program—it insists on not being one—but it’s a spiritual one. Say what? What does that even mean? Spiritual is such an incredibly broad term that obviously it means different things to different people. To you it might mean Roman Catholic, to somebody else it means Buddhism, and to somebody else yet it just sounds confusing.

To me it sounded confusing. I was not “spiritual” ever—I’ve considered myself a secularist,  and as much as I’ve tried to get some kind of spiritual injection from the program and outside of it (I’ve gone to churches on my quest for god), I just could never fully believe that this was what lied behind my full recovery. Higher Power, yes—but in my case, a belief in Reality. Not in Deity. I needed things to be simple. AA complicated things for me. Sure, it got me sober, but it didn’t make me feel whole.

I know that I am not alone. I know that there are many people in the rooms of AA who are afraid of speaking their minds for the fear of being ostracised because they don’t feel particularly spiritual. Telling a newcomer AA is religious not “spiritual” is like telling a life-long atheist that someone is Protestant not Catholic.  It means nothing.  Why can’t we stop scaring people away and simply use the work “relational” instead of “spiritual”? (Relational according to the Oxford Dictionary definition:  “Concerning the way in which two or more people or things are connected.”).

Getting rid of labels that are so complicated (and for some connected to trauma as well—take the Catholic church and the sex abuse scandals within it), would make the 12-step program so much more accessible. Walking into a room and seeing a slogan that reads “God… “ is what might make a lot of people simply walk right out the door. And they shouldn’t walk out of those doors. Everybody deserves a chance at recovery. The language shouldn’t be another wall a person with substance-use has to jump over. I believe getting rid of some of the “spiritual” language would really give a chance to those put off by religious terms and bring all of us closer together.

About the Author

David B. Bohl, author of the memoir Parallel Universes:  The Story of Rebirth, is an independent addiction consultant who fully understands the challenges faced by so many who seek to escape from, or drown their pain through, external means. His story offers hope to those struggling with the reality of everyday life in today’s increasingly stressful world.

Through his private practice substance use disorder consulting business, Beacon Confidential LLC, David provides independent professional consultation, strategic planning, motivation and engagement, care coordination, recovery management and monitoring, and advocacy services to individuals, families, and organizations struggling with substance use issues and disorders.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



  1. life-j January 3, 2019 at 10:40 pm - Reply

    “Human Power Can Relieve our Alcoholism” – that simple slogan from the convention – that’s a strong one. That speaks truth against power. “Look, we’re all sitting here helping each other, and you want to claim that that isn’t relieving our alcoholism? Take your blinders off, folks!” “Be spiritual and religious all you want if it helps you, but the reason we are here together, rather than all of us sitting at home alone communing with god is that human power does work!” I don’t know – god created the human ear canal about the size of a finger so his followers could protect themselves against heresy such as this, but we need to really write something new.

  2. life-j January 3, 2019 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    David, thanks for yet another pertinent post. I think it is hopeless to translate all Bill’s religious fabrications into secular language in such a way that we wind up with something which makes us better off than we were. In other words, yes, we can do it, but does it help? A religious program by any other name is still a religious program. No matter how you translate the words or concepts of a ‘higher power’ – the whole point of having a higher power is to have some sort of imaginary friend who disregards the laws of physics and intervenes in your life in a manner which improves your life in some way. If that is not the point of having a higher power there is no point in having one that I can see. A higher power which isn’t really higher? or can’t intervene in your life? Or doesn’t listen to prayers? Then what good is it? So then if we take higher power, and god out of the AA program, what is left? Not much “program” that I can see as useful. What  is left is the fellowship, one alcoholic helping another, a variety of down to earth human relations.

    So let’s not bother translating “the program” into something secular. Instead let us write another one, based on what we see working among us. The principles that work in AA are honesty, openmindedness, willingness, humility, service, gratitude, acceptance, living by the golden rule. (I bet someone with OCD can grace us  with 4 more so we can remain stuck in the 12 apostle nonsense). We could write something based on these 8 principles. What is it that makes AA work? One alcoholic helping another. taking it one day at a time. It’s the first drink that gets you drunk, so don’t take it, principles like that. We could write something based on that. And of course we  need to have something for the newcomer to do, something like a workbook, something like the page on step 4, etc. we have to have something for the newcomers to do, but it ought to be rooted in common sense instead of religion. If we start writing other literature – I mean something new, not just a bunch of polemics  against the regular program (as I have participated in more than most, myself, but I’m getting to see we need to do more) – well, who can argue that those 8 principles are the basis for our program? So let’s hit ’em all over the head with it in a way that circumvents the religious stuff. Until we  come up with some new literature to replace the old – literature which is genuinely rooted in what it is that genuinely makes AA work, we won’t really get anywhere.

  3. John M. December 12, 2018 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Dear David,

    My sympathies are with you and a great number of our fellow secular AAs who argue that the word “spirituality” is too amorphous to be a meaningful term, and therefore not much help in communicating the specifics of recovery from alcoholism. You suggest a great word instead, “relational.” I’m all in (sort of). 

    In one of the most influential texts of the 20th century, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Buber writes, “In the beginning was the relation,” paraphrasing the 1st sentence of Genesis. One of the book’s basic themes is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. And doesn’t the AA fellowship demonstrate the truth of this if/when we find the group of people that represents a meaningful recovery community for us?

    A few folks, however, might look up some biographical material on Buber and discover that he was a religious fellow (sort of). Yet, he only spoke secularly to me when I first read him in much the same way as the Big Book and The Twelve and Twelve only spoke to me in terms of my secularity when I first read these texts — I wouldn’t allow them to speak to me in any other way. (I think this is just another way of saying, take what you need and leave the rest behind.)

    And so, with this example, we come back perhaps to the same problem as when we use the term “spiritual?” Personally, I would prefer to replace “the spiritual” with “the existential” since existentialism had a huge influence on me in my formative years and “the existential” means, for me, the journey to find a deeply held, personal meaning in a fundamentally open-to-meaning universe. But the problem with “the existential” is that some will object to it because a good many of the existentialist were religious (like Buber? like Kierkegaard?), so it can also be a tainted word. Most, I suspect, will simply say it has no significance to them personally and that it is just as amorphous a term as the word “spiritual.”

    I’m all for finding in secular AA a substitute word for “spirituality” that means something fairly specific and concrete with everyday significance — something that we are all comfortable using. Yet if the influential philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was correct and the meaning of words spring to life to become relevant and communicable mostly through their common usage, then our substitute words — “relational” and “existential,” or others — will have to find some kind of AA “social movement” to advance their cause. (Perhaps secular AA is the beginning of this movement.)

    My apologies, David, for the long-winded way of getting to the point that I wanted to emphasize in my response to you. The use of the word “spiritual” has become very common today, especially among pollsters, the news media, and with an increasing number of folks (stretching across demographics) because the phrase “spiritual but not religious” in common usage means ironically, not something vague and ineffable, but something very specific and definitive. For those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” it means that they are not to be confused with believers who belong to organized religion and adhere to its theology, and they are not to be identified with those who seem happy to pursue a one-dimensional and crass materialism.

    For secular AAs who are comfortable with some sort of reference to AA’s “spiritual program of recovery,” I suspect that it is also used as a general term to differentiate AA from the medical/psychological modalities of recovery which are as important as AA and yet distinct.
    Thank you for your very thoughtful essay!

  4. Tomas L December 12, 2018 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    Language certainly is an important aspect of AA, and I think we should pay more attention to it. There is a saying in communication theory that I like:
    “The meaning of a message is whatever the recipient makes of it.”
    It’s not a universal truth, but I think it is a very useful way of seeing communication. I think it is really in line with what we say in AA, but far too often the opposite of what we actually do. We say we want to help people, that the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking and that the newcomer is the most important person at a meeting, but the incredibly cynical saying “If God drives them out, alcohol will beat them back” is widely accepted and rarely criticized. We say that we are not religious, but the word “God” is on posters all over many meeting rooms in a large and embellished font as if copied right out of the Bible. It’s simply poor communication. If you really mean that meetings should not be religious, then don’t keep talking about religion. And if we really mean what we say about listening to the minority opinion, being humble and wanting newcomers to feel welcome and get their best chance at recovery, then don’t tell them what they should feel and think. Ask them if they feel welcome and included, and if they don’t then ask them why not. And don’t tell them God means Group Of Drunks, ask them if it makes sense to them that “God” can mean something non-religious. (I used to think it made sense, but have come to believe it makes more sense to say God if I mean God and Group Of Drunks if that’s what I mean.) As for that saying I quoted, I think the newcomers are the best judges of what that message we carry really is. If they say that AA carries a religious message, then it doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it means that AA has a problem.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.