If you ever get bored one day, and want an exercise in futility, find an AAer and ask them to pin down exactly what they believe AA to be. My experience in this shows me that answer will be situational, and depending on the objective of the AA member, it is anything from a “fellowship” to a “support group” to “therapy”. It becomes like a psychological game of three-card monte, and can be a maddening experience.

One thing to which they will rarely admit, is that it is a religious organization. This gets particularly frustrating for anyone who has ever attended a meeting, as it is overtly religious – from the citing of the twelve-steps, to the reading of the Lord’s Prayer. This fact was never an issue in the early days of AA, before the courts fully embraced the establishment clause of The Constitution. This is from a 1939 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“There is no blinking the fact that Alcoholics Anonymous, the amazing society of ex-drunks who have cured each other of an incurable disease, is religious. Its members have cured each other frankly with the help of God. Every cured member of the Cleveland Fellowship of the society, like every cured member of the other chapters now established in Akron, New York, and elsewhere in the country, is cured with the admission that he submitted his plight wholeheartedly to a Power Greater than Himself.

He has admitted his conviction that science cannot cure him, that he cannot control his pathological craving for alcohol himself, and that he cannot be cured by the prayers, threats, or pleas of his family, employers, or friends. His cure is a religious experience. He had to have God’s aid. He had to submit to a spiritual housecleaning.”

Back in the early days, AA’s religious principles were just as overt as they were today, but they were less of an issue. Not until courts began ruling that the state cannot impose organized religion on an individual, did AA fully embrace the “it’s spiritual, not religious” doublespeak. Sure, it was used before, but only as a duplicitous recruiting tool, and not as a legal argument. Still, there is really no difference between “spiritual” and “religious”, and using one term over another is like using the word “mauve” instead of “light purple”, as they are two terms that describe the same thing.

AA’s do not deny their religious nature when it suits their needs. As with that article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, nobody complains when AA is referenced in the Religious calendars of newspapers from across the country, or in puff pieces from the “Religious Section” of various newspapers, like this one from Reno, Nevada. Here is a quote:

“Honestly, I’ve been in many places of worship, and I haven’t heard this sort of genuine personal recitation of God’s place in the individual’s life. When I came to the gathering, I thought perhaps it was a stretch to put an AA meeting in a space usually reserved for more traditional spiritual practices, but this group has its ritual, personal testimony and even honored writings—same as any other religious organization. After all, God is mentioned in six of the 12 steps, with the second—Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity—expressing a belief in God’s personal intervention in their lives.”

I doubt there were any complaints from this AA group about what was written in this article, or why it appears as a church review. I emailed the author and asked him, but so far I have heard no response.

Go to any meeting, and you will swear that you are in a church group. AA’s like to hold the odd atheist up as a poster child, proving they are inclusive; but those are the rare exceptions of non-believers who are able to look past the dogma. Every church has quiet non-believers within their congregations, but that does not mean they are not religious. Besides, AA’s stated objective with these non-believers is to subject them to the dogma long enough to where they will eventually receive their own white light experience. Acceptance of an atheist or agnostic into AA is not an inclusive act. It is an act of conversion.

Courts understand these things, as they are not easily persuaded by fallacious arguments. AA has, in multiple cases, been ruled a religious organization that cannot be imposed on an individual. One of the more interesting cases is that of Paul Cox, who confessed in his AA group to bludgeoning a couple of people, and as a result was charged and convicted of murder. The appeals court later ruled that the State did not extend his clergy privilege in his conviction, and that his confession of these murders is tantamount to confessing to priest, because AA is a religious organization. (Cox v Miller)

It begs a number of questions, including what was the mindset of the defendant when he made this open confession to his group. I suspect he felt the religious experience of AA that many of the converts describe, and that he was merely confessing to his peer group of lay ministers, which is essentially what an AAer becomes with time in the group. They are, after all, giving out spiritual advice and preaching from what is, in their minds, an infallible doctrine. I also suspect that had anyone questioned this guy before he was charged with a crime whether AA was religious or not, he would have given them the old ‘it-is-spiritual-not-religious’ spin, but I say this only because I have never heard any AAer admit to it being religious.

I’m no legal scholar, but I don’t agree with the ruling. I don’t believe that religious freedom extends to confessions of crime – whether they are done in a confession booth or to a congregation of believers. I do, however, agree with the logical consistency of the ruling that if an organization is going to act as a religion, then they should have the same accountabilities and rights as any religion. If this judge felt AA was religious, he had an obligation to rule as he would with any other religion.