A self-identification as having no religious affiliation was the big news in a study by the Pew Research Center, the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. “The number of religiously unaffiliated adults has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007.” Those individuals who are religiously unaffiliated generally are less religiously active, but many believe in God and even pray on occasion. According to the Religious Landscape Survey, “Many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.”
This spiritual, but not religious group of individuals—those indicating that they have no particular religious affiliation, reported as “nothing in particular” in the survey—are the third largest “religious” group in the U.S. behind Evangelical Protestants (25.4%) and Catholics (20.8%); Nothing in particulars (15.8%). So there is a large group of Americans who are not atheists or agnostics; nor are they religious. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant percentage of this group were active within 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
For a number of years I have been struck by the fact that there are both religious and nonreligious individuals who are critical of the presumed religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Nonreligious critics see it as too religious; religious ones believe it isn’t religious enough. Ironically, A.A. and other Twelve Step recovery programs modeled after it consistently claim they not religious at all.
Historical, religious influences upon A.A. are readily acknowledged by the organization, as are its nonreligious influences. Somewhere in the mix is the claim that it is a spiritual, but not religious program—a claim that is too often dismissed by its critics without an understanding of its origins and meaning. At the center of this debate are the Twelve Steps themselves, whose treatment of God is the flashpoint for both sides.
A.A. was founded in 1935, in the midst of a full social and cultural retreat away from the influence of Christian religious belief on American life. Doctrine, dogma and creeds were found to be increasingly irrelevant after the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the Scopes Trial, a high school biology teacher named John Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution. The trial pitted modernists, who saw Christian religion as consistent with evolution, against fundamentalists who believed that evolution was contrary to Scripture and Christian belief and therefore should not be taught in public schools.
In many ways, the issues debated in the Scopes trial now haunt the dispute over A.A. and the Twelve Steps. And it seems these concerns can be articulated within three basic questions. First, is there a place for God in the practice of addiction recovery? Second, is Twelve Step recovery consistent with the Christian religion? Third, should Christians holding to the importance of the Bible as the rule for faith and life participate in Twelve Step recovery programs?
Many individuals have answered the first question with a resounding “No!” and organized intentionally nonreligious support groups such as: Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Women for Sobriety. On the other hand, many Christians believe there is a place for God in recovery. But they question if Twelve Step recovery is consistent with Scripture and feel that Christians should be cautious about participating in groups that do not explicitly affirm that Jesus is Lord. So they organized faith-based support groups that reach out to the still-suffering addict and alcoholic from a self consciously Christian perspective. Some of these include: Alcoholics for Christ, Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery, Christians in Recovery, and Overcomers Outreach. Then there are the Twelve Step-based groups that answer “yes” to all three questions: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, and many more.
My own answers to these three questions would be nuanced. With regards to the first question, is there a place for God in addiction recovery, I would answer with a resounding “Yes”! I’d also reject the charge that such an affirmation makes Twelve Step addiction recovery inherently religious. The supposed religiosity of the Twelve Steps rests upon the premise that any belief in a Supreme, Transcendent Being is inherently religious. A.A., which originated the Twelve Steps, held that belief in some sort of God was normal. The A.A. Big Book said: “Deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.” Twelve Step recovery believes that a religion takes this fundamental belief in God and the rituals that accompany it, and then institutionalizes them. See “What Does Religious Mean?,” “Spiritual, Not Religious Experience,” and “The God of the Preachers” for more on these distinctions.
With regard to the second question, is Christianity consistent with the Twelve Steps, I would say it is and it isn’t. There are many parallels between Christianity and Twelve Step recovery. Yet Biblical Christianity makes an explicit claim that Jesus Christ alone is the way to God: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). When Christians hold that these words are infallible, that along with all the remaining words of the Bible they are the very breath of God, then compromising them as A.A. does is considered to be a serious break with orthodox Christian belief.
Lastly, I would say that Bible believing Christians can and should participate in non-Christian Twelve Step groups. But I would add that this participation is not a substitute for their fellowship with other members of the body of Christ. Christian faith matures within the context of fellowship with other Christians. Members of A.A. know this is true for alcoholics as well. Recovery matures within the context of fellowship with other recovering alcoholics. Sadly, Christian fellowship alone is often not vibrant enough for addicts and alcoholics to establish and then maintain their abstinence and sobriety. Their recovery can be strengthened within the fellowship of Twelve Step-based groups.
I plan to use the book of Romans as the anchor point for a series of articles that will illustrate how there is a common spiritual path upon which Christians and individuals can travel together—at least for part of their journeys. So there are two primary audiences to whom this series of articles is written: bible-believing Christians who find participation in Twelve Step groups helpful and even necessary for their recovery, and members of Twelve Step groups who desire to grow spiritually within the context of Christian fellowship.
I hope to demonstrate to both groups that they can do so without fear of compromising either their Christian faith or their recovery. Religious critics of A.A. can also gain an understanding of what is meant by its claim to be a spiritual, but not religious program. And perhaps soften their opposition to Christians participating in Twelve Step recovery. There is a richness and depth to the compatibility of Twelve Step recovery and Scripture that proceeds from the deep structure of Scripture.
But the concerns that will be addressed here are not just those encountered by Christians involved in self-help groups based upon the Twelve Steps. Increasingly, Western culture itself has become “spiritual, but not religious” in a way that builds upon the view of religion and spirituality found in the Twelve Steps. I think the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey illustrates this. Americans in particular have historically had diverse opinions on what it means to be “one nation under God” that fits with the idea being spiritual but not religious. Self-defined higher powers and the subjective experience of transcendence articulated in the writings of William James have become a basis for the spirituality of millions of individuals.
The same religious and theological challenges encountered as we journey along the path of recovery through the book of Romans occur repeatedly when discussing the relevance of Christianity to the lives of the millions of spiritual, not religious individuals who sit beside us on planes and in coffee shops; who live in our neighborhoods; who commute to work with us; and who even sit in the church pews beside us on Sunday.
If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “01,” the first one Enjoy.