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12 Step Programs and religion

12 Step Programs & Religion

Why is “God” mentioned so much & why are 12 step prayers the same as Christian prayers? Are 12-step programs religious?

The less religious someone is, the more they notice how prevalent the focus on God and religious symbolism is in AA. The word God appears 315 times in the Big Book of AA.

What makes the 12-step conception of religion unique is that every addict can use their spiritual conception. Since there is no specific dogma that guides belief, there is an infinite variety within the membership of the groups.

The Christian Background of AA

The first 12-step program was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and it is very much a product of its time and place. Founded in a time when the United States was a very Christian and Protestant nation.

The two founders of the organization, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, were firm believers in Christianity and many of their ideas had blossomed out of religious-oriented seminars they had participated in. Not surprisingly, the basic AA literature is strongly influenced by these beliefs. When they refer to a Higher Power, they explicitly refer to God.

Another religious element in 12-step meetings is the “serenity prayer”:

“God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference.”


Who wrote the “Serenity Prayer”?

Although it does not contain material that is strictly Christian, it was written by an important theologian of that faith. However, the wisdom behind Dr. Rheinhold Niebuhr’s prayer transcends religion and belies a deeper universal truth.

However, the founders of AA were well aware that not all of the members of the fellowship are Christian and they wanted the program to work for everyone. Therefore, the original literature does not refer specifically to Christian doctrine, even if it does use that language extensively for cultural reasons.

Therefore, even though the literature and the prayers often explicitly use God (because that is how the founders understood their Higher Power), for the individual member that may refer to their conception of a Higher Power.

The less religious members of AA have long sought alternatives to the Christian definition of God. For some, the term God stands for general principles. Therefore, they use it as an acronym for “good orderly direction.” Others look to the 12-step group for spiritual direction. They somewhat tongue in cheek refer to God as an acronym for “group of drunks.”

Founder Bill W. oversaw these changes and fully agreed with them, despite his Christian beliefs. Towards the end of his life, he wrote the following:

“We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture, and religion. In A.A. we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be the first consideration for us all.”

– Bill W.

A Spiritual Rather than Religious Foundation

The God-related elements of the fellowship aim to encourage a spiritual foundation to recovery. The founders believed that without a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself and the guidance of a Higher Power, recovery is very difficult.

Spiritual vs. Religious

What is the difference between a spiritual approach and a religious one? Religion tends to be very specific about what to believe, how to express that belief, and how to act morally.

Spirituality is very different. It is the focus on making a connection with something greater than yourself on your terms and doing what feels meaningful to the individual. If that means adopting some of the traditional customs of one’s traditional religion or upbringing, that is fine. If it doesn’t that is equally acceptable. A spiritual journey is about finding what works for an individual, rather than following rules or traditions dictated by someone else.

The premise of the 12-step program is that the judgment of the addict has led them down a road of misery and self-destruction. In accordance, they are advised to replace their flawed judgment and motivations for the benevolent and superior guidance of their Higher Power.

12-step programs recognize that when it comes to spiritual beliefs, there are not formulas that work for everyone. For some people, spiritual belief is all-encompassing and ecstatic. For others, it is a grave and somber connection with a Higher Power. Meanwhile, for others, spirituality is an intimate and non-dramatic part of their daily life. The important part is that recovery should be supported by a spiritual component.

Navigating Faith in a 12-Step Program

If you are an agnostic or atheist you may find that some groups or organizations are too religious for your liking. One option is to change your homegroup. Every group has a different feel, and some may be dramatically more religious than others. Some mainstream groups have stopped mentioning God specifically or reciting the serenity prayer. These measures can make more spiritually-minded members feel more comfortable.

In many cases, there are specifically agnostic or atheist groups. They are particularly easy to locate in the bigger cities, where a greater variety of meetings take place.

AA and other 12-step programs are unlikely to change the wording of their literature any time soon. It will continue to address God and have religious elements. But as an individual attending meeting, you do not have to say anything that makes you uncomfortable. The only requirement of most 12-step programs is that you suffer from a relevant addiction and have a genuine desire to recover.

Whatever your spiritual or religious beliefs may be, do not let them stop you from getting the help you need. 12-step programs are there to help and include those who need them, and not there to judge or leave addicts out in the cold.

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