Professor John Kelly of Harvard Medical School, an addiction expert and an occasional commenter on RBC, has just published a new study of Alcoholics Anonymous. The key finding of his quite sophisticated longitudinal research is that many AA members undergo spiritual changes that in turn lead to subsequent reductions in their drinking. This finding has generated “spirited” debate among AA members and observers, as you can see in the comments thread on CNN’s coverage here).
One predictable theme in the debate is whether Dr. Kelly’s work proves that AA is a religion. The recent release of drafts of AA’s Big Book shows how close AA came to being a religious rather than spiritual organization. The decision to move AA away from Protestant derived dogma (in the literal, non-pejorative sense of that word) involved intense internal struggle. Those members who wanted AA’s fundamental mission to be promoting recovery ultimately won out over those who wanted AA’s fundamental mission to be promoting a particular belief system (As do religions). The victory of the pragmatists is why there are countless atheists, agnostics, Catholics and Jews in AA and its sister 12-step organizations. It is also why 12-step organizations are growing like wildfire in places such as Iran and India rather than being small clubs of Protestant alcoholics in recovery in places like Akron, Ohio.