In increasingly secular times, the long tradition of a higher power in Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12-step recovery program is coming under scrutiny. Photo by Randy Heinitz/Flickr

No power higher — AA without God?

  • June 26, 2021

For many struggling with addiction, 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which traditionally centres on the relationship to a higher power, have been an effective path to recovery.

The concept of a higher power has long been a fixture in 12-step programs. With a higher power, you are never alone and can lower your chance of relapse, the program teaches. As people become sober, they often need a healthy focus to replace their relationship with drugs or alcohol, and creating a spiritual path with a higher power can be that focus.

However, with the growing number of non-religious communities and cultures, a secular AA movement has emerged which seeks to provide an option for those without traditional beliefs as it relates to God.

Mark C. has been sober for 34 years and a continuous member of traditional AA  groups in Toronto. He has been involved with most aspects of service including leading groups, being a sponsor and doing service work in detox centres and jails. He says one of the core traditions of AA is that every group is an entity and authority unto itself.

“Effectively any two people gathered together for the purpose of sobriety provided they don’t have any other affiliation can call themselves an AA group,” he said.

The program offers an invitation to each and every individual who comes to AA to find and to develop their own relationship with the Higher Power, Creator of the universe.

Many people, he says who refer to God as anything from “good orderly direction” or don’t refer to God at all.

“There’s approximately now two million members of Alcoholics Anonymous in North America and I can guarantee you there are at least two million ways of practising the program,” said Mark C., whose name is protected as part of AA member tradition.  “We’re like snowflakes and every one of us practices the program in our own unique way.”

This growing secular AA community has intrigued Zachary Munro, a PhD candidate in the department of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo who has centred his research on the topic. The rise of secular AA groups was Munro’s focus during the fourth talk in the Lectures in Catholic Experience presented by St. Jerome’s University June 11. 

Changing attitudes in western society towards the concept of God or a higher power have been unfolding over the past few decades. In British Columbia, people who define themselves as having no religion now outnumber believers. Many grew up in religious homes but left and today there is a growing number of young people being raised in homes with no spirituality. It is projected that soon the majority of Canadians under the age of 35 will belong to a non-religious category.

Over two years in field work immersing himself in secular AA culture, Munro spoke to 40 individuals enrolled in such programs and attended roughly 300 meetings. He was struck by the breath of diversity of these groups, with many referring to themselves as “agnostic” or “freethinking” as opposed to secular.

It was clear in his research that many did not take issue with the concept of God as much as they did with inflexible ways in which the program was run in many incidences, which they felt left little room for difference.   

One participant whom Munro referred to as “Jesse” got sober in 1976 through the help of traditional AA in Montreal and has been a supporter of the secular AA movement. As someone with decades of experience on the other side of addiction, Jesse found the more traditional AA model in Toronto was more conservative and off-putting compared to what he experienced in Montreal.

“A part of why he is supportive of the secular movement in AA is because he saw what was going on in Toronto AA as something that was becoming increasingly rigid, dogmatic, conformist, something that was not quite the AA that he was accustomed to,” said Munro.

Regional differences in AA can vary greatly. Munro says in places where traditional AA groups allowed for less flexibility as it relates to the concept of God and a higher power, those areas were likely to have pockets of secular AA meetings emerge. With use of male-gendered references to God and the structure of some meetings that mimicked Bible studies, participants drawn to more secular groups tended to view mentions of the “higher power” as a step towards God rather than a concept open to their individual interpretation. In Toronto, Munro found 15-16 active secular AA groups just prior to the pandemic.

“There was oftentimes that people would come from say Vancouver, and they would enter meetings and expressed their shock that at the end of every traditional AA meeting in Toronto that they’ve been to, it has ended in the Lord’s prayer,” said Munro.  “That was something they had never seen despite being in AA for many years. For many people in traditional AA (in other regions), elements that they identified as religious weren’t problems because they weren’t pushed on them.”

Based on his observations having attended hundreds of AA meetings in the Greater Toronto Area, Mark C., guesses there are probably a lot more atheists and agnostics that are members of traditional AA groups than there are members of groups that identify themselves as being for atheists, agnostics or free thinkers.

“It’s not that people who are atheist or agnostic don’t feel like they can be part of conventional AA groups,” he said. “In my group, we closed our meetings with the Lord’s prayer, and there were several members of our group who were atheists and had been members for years. Closing with the Lord’s prayer was just part of the culture and custom. I had to join AA, I couldn’t expect AA to join me.”

Though it is challenging to control for regional differences, Munro says theoretically it is possible to maintain the foundational concept of God and higher power while working to make the AA models more inclusive of those in different places in their spiritual journey.

“The secular movement that is happening now is highlighting different pockets of where this conservatism in AA is occurring,” said Munro. “When you don’t see it in the other places those are probably the places that are most open and less dogmatic. Those concepts like a higher power could be non-dogmatic indeed and up to the individuals choosing if it doesn’t necessarily mean belief in God.”

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