The Non-Religious Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “The Non-Religious Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous”

  1. While religion is fairly easy to define, "spirituality" has remained more elusive, and the two are often confused. My favorite description of spirituality is one by George Vaillant in his book, Spiritual Evolution, where he makes a comparison between the constituents of white light and those of spirituality. He notes that when white light is shone through a prism it gets split into its constituent parts – the seven colors of the rainbow; he continues that if spirituality were to be shone through a prism it would be split into the positive emotions of gratitude, joy, forgiveness, and compassion. I think AA helps individuals stay sober and in recovery, in part, because it has discovered a way to systematically elicit these positive emotions, through the fellowship of kindred spirits and a self-defined “Higher Power”, whatever form that may take.

  2. A vague spirituality has long been seen as a strength of AA. Its reference to god can be interpreted in so many ways because it is not the god of any particular tradition. Members can bring their own god.

    However, even though this spirituality is vague, many alcoholics have had negative experiences of god, be it at home, in school, society etc.,and thus these many are alienated by AA's spirituality. Hence we see many alternative recovery programs springing up – which I believe is no bad thing.

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