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.

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“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… Read more »


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… Read more »


Good luck with that aa will NRVER change it os fading away into obscurity! Because of this rigidiy it has failed to makes changes it needed to adjust with the Current time we live in. AA will be around but it will be just like AMISH highly irrelevant. If you want to keep using a rotary phone be my guest i will use my I phone and keep updating.

John M.
John M.

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.… Read more »


It doesnt matter it is religious many quotes taken from bible and saying lords prayer against tradition but they will nail you to a cross if you bring it up. It is what it is. Spiritual=religious. And further more to the wives what heracy!! Wilson writing from a woman’s perpective and we agnostics VERY VERY Demeaning. I use that book as a doorstop

Tomas L
Tomas L

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… Read more »