A growing category of self-attribution in the U.S.A. A number of Americans find themselves alienated from what they think of as organized religion, and yet have active spiritual lives.

The phrase seems to have been popularized by members of Alcoholics Anonymous, a non-sectarian movement for recovering alcoholics that characterizes itself as "spiritual not religious." C.f. spirituality has nothing to do with religion.

Spiritual or Religious? - The A.A. Debate

Alcoholics Anonymous, the original 12-step program, is commonly misconceived as being a religious organization. New members, many agnostic if not self-professed atheistic, often stumble on the roadblock of the word "God", commonly used by AA members instead of the term, "Higher Power", employed by A.A. literature.

Alcoholics Anonymous defines alcoholism as a three-fold disease of physical addiction, mental/emotional obsession, and spiritual deprivation. The Twelve Steps of A.A. were never intended as a statement of belief. An enlargement of the tenets of the Oxford Group, they simply describe what the original 100 members of A.A. did to achieve and maintain sobriety.

These Twelve Steps contain no new ideas; they mirror concepts found in worldwide spiritual movements evolving over centuries of reflective thought. They present to the suffering alcoholic a plan of action designed to implement the ideas of surrender, self-inventory, confession, prayer and meditation and, finally, working with others to combat self-centeredness. These ideas are generally met with defiance by sick and frightened individuals who are determined not to be told what to do, think, or believe.

A.A. members, with typical tongue-in-cheek irreverence, often refer to their organization as the "last house on the block". Many arrive in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous completely destitute. Others, referred to as "high bottom", have retained the economic manifestations of success but are emotionally defeated.

Many feel abandoned by the religion of their childhood; others have questioned and jettisoned any spiritual beliefs they may have possessed. Practically all of them feel that their drinking is simply in need of "control". They further feel that they are victims of bad luck, an unfeeling society, the wrong choice of career, spouse, or any combination of life situations.

While Alcoholics Anonymous began as a white, middle-class, almost exclusively male and primarily Christian group, the founding members represented a full spectrum of opinion and belief. They held conservative, liberal, and radical viewpoints.

The writing of the book, "Alcoholics Anonymous", from which the movement eventually took its name, was a hotly-contested project. Preferences ran the gauntlet from a Christian-based work through a theological thesis to an agnostic psychological approach. The final - and perhaps only - solution was to compromise. It was in this compromise that the very essence of Alcoholics Anonymous was created.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous refer to God as a "Power greater than ourselves" or "God as we understood Him". The Steps were introduced as ". . the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery". The Twelve Steps were and remain suggestions only.

Since the writing of "Alcoholics Anonymous" in 1939, these compromises have made it possible for alcoholics of all faiths (and alcoholics with an aversion to any faith) to find and maintain lasting sobriety.

Despite the emphasis on "suggestion", the phrase "spiritual awakening" often heard in A.A. is another stumbling block for newcomers. For some it evokes an image of revival tent rhetoric, for others it seems an impossible pie-in-the-sky fantasy. However, for those alcoholics who persevere in sobriety, they almost invariably arrive at a realization that - without completely understanding how, when or why - they have experienced a spiritual change.

This has been called a "gift amounting to a new state of consciousness", a "transformation", a "source of strength hitherto self-denied". With typical A.A. irreverence, many members feel that, "We are all miracles."

Standard disclaimer answer: Of course it's spiritual and not religious. It's an A.A. slogan, and so, of course, it's true, since A.A. is a program of rigorous honesty. To state otherwise would be to potentially endanger the sobriety of the three million members of A.A. and other 12 step organizations worldwide, and to place a bar to the path of countless other sufferers. If you cannot understand the logic of the above, be grateful, since only an alcoholic can truly understand A.A., but if you feel any kind of emotional response to the statement, examine your conscience, and ask yourself if you, yourself might not benefit from some kind of 12-step involvement. Even so, we should honor the beliefs of others, and have respect for them. That the obviously sick and deluded woman who writes the two other parts of this WU has the temerity to use Bill W.'s last name is only a symptom of her illness. We pray daily that she might come to see the light at last, and seek treatment for her sick soul.

Skeptical/Dr. Gregory House-like answer: It's a marketing ploy. Most of A.A. comes from the Oxford Groups organization's modus operandi: the reliance on slogans, meetings and group activities to mold behavior, the emphasis on public confession and (strongly controlled) guidance from God, and particularly the recruitment of new members. At one time, Catholics were strongly urged not to join any kind of fraternal organization that wasn't specifically for Catholics, especially religious ones. The Oxford Group's way of circumventing this was to bill itself "More spiritual than religious!" (the exclamation point's theirs). A.A. founder W.G. Wilson was confronted with the same problem, but since also had to distance himself from the Oxford Group, (who had been having problems of their own) he used a slightly stronger version of the same slogan. At the time, the slogan sounded like a way of sounding more intellectual and "modern" than the old-time Temperance organizations: no, it's not a religion or a cult, it's based on sound psychological principles.

Nowadays, this slogan is used as a way to sound New Agey and slightly counter-cultural, the kind of organization that would welcome aging Baby Boomers and hip jaded twentysomethings, hungry for the latest self-help fix. They talk of Carl Jung, of Rheinhold Niebuhr, or of Gregory Bateson, and make it sound as if they're the latest, hippest way to better yourself. Actually, they're a relic of the mid-20th century, who believed that with enough propaganda, catchy enough slogans, and group activity, you can get anyone to do anything, including quitting drinking. ("A witty saying proves nothing." as Voltaire said, self-referentially.) In truth, Carl Jung had very little to do with the organzation, Niebuhr's Tao-like Serenity Prayer had been circulated with American G.I.'s for several years before being adopted as a feature of A.A., sometime in the 1950's (oddly, Niebuhr despised the Oxford Group ), and Gregory Bateson's paper, although generally approving, has more to deal with Gregory Bateson's theories than it does with any actual practises or ideas in The Big Book.

Reading Alcoholics Anonymous, one quickly gets a mental picture of the successful A.A. product as being a man in a double-breasted suit,a Stetson hat,  and a hard-sided briefcase, standing in front of a prewar Colonial house, beside his aproned, compliant wife and adoring children, midway between a church and a skyscraper (both half-hidden behind lush New England foliage), his trusty set of golf clubs leaning against a tree.  (And please, if you doubt me, read "To Wives" and "The Family, Afterwards.") A heartwarming image, perhaps, but hardly one to motivate a former gang member or a lesbian artist/farmer's market organizer whose home church is the local Spiral Dance drum circle.

In point of fact, William Griffith Wilson did live somewhat of a countercultural life: after writing the Big Book, he never returned to the standard workforce, never had a family beyond Lois. He lived off of speaker's fees and royalties from The Big Book, having named himself the sole copyright holder, and a fund established by A.A., which also provided him with a house, "Stepping Stones".  In time, he came to be somewhat of an embarrassment to the organization, due to his bouts of depression, egregious womanizing, advocacy of LSD and spiritualism, and his four-pack-a-day smoking habit, from which he died of respiratory collapse. An interesting life, and a sober one (athough, dying, he called out for whiskey), but hardly an exemplary one for veterans of excess.

As for it being based on sound medical, or psychological principles, let's remember that its own accounting (and that of the Harvard Medical Journal) claims only a 5% success rate per year.


Free-range religious scholar and part-time Woman of Ghod answer: At the time that W.G.Wilson was writing about A.A. the words "religious" and "spiritual" could be used interchangeably. In contemporary America, they're about as different as The Hierophant and The High Priestess in the Tarot deck, in Stranger in a Strange Land, Bishop Digby versus Michael Valentine Smith, the mob versus Tommy in "Tommy", Billy Graham versus Timothy Leary. As Friedrich Nietzsche had it, it's Apollonian versus Dionysian....(Let's make it clear, I'm not putting one in front of the other. I'm an Anglican, but I'm also a mystic. It's just that they mutually answer each other's enigmas.)

 The sticking point is not the name, but the nature, of God. In standard-brand Christianity, God is above and wholly apart from His creation. In particular, humanity is cut off from God through Original Sin, and because of this, is subject to (among other things) work, pain, disease, death, and finally, judgment at His hands. Though Jesus (whose nature was something like ours, but different) redeemed humankind through His Crucifixion, each individual must redeem themselves through some combination of good works, penance, group worship, and adoption of various dogmas, taboos and practises that vary from group to group. Since self-interest, individual will and identity are held to be part of the apostasy of the individual from God, putting the needs of the group before one's own, and in particular, letting your individual will be subsumed by God's is part of the price of redemption. To the good, the saved, and the worthy, go peace, immortality, and entrance into the Heavenly City at the End of Time, to everyone else...well, sorry, nice knowing you.

Even though we have, living among our midst, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and sundry other faiths as well as other forms of Christianity, this is the general pattern of what people associate with "religion": God's in His Heaven, which is somewhere else, people used to be a lot better (and better off) than they are now, humanity (individually) is pretty wretched, flawed, and downright awful, in God's opinion, but can make up for it by promising to do better, and, even though things look terrible now, someday you'll die and if you did everything right, things will be a lot better. Although the details may differ from place to place and organization to organization, the taboos are conveniently black and white, the rules might change, but not by much, at a time, and the symbols, scriptures, and cultural memes stay comfortingly stable.

It's not unknown, but contemplative prayer is downplayed, as is actual religious experience: what is called "meditation" is a highly structured, intellectual experience of guided visualization, or relating questions or passages to everyday life.  Ecstatic experience is (largely) taboo: it's safe to say that in mainstream American religion all the saints are conveniently in Heaven, or dead. However, this is more than made up for in terms of emotionality and what might be called team spirit, complete with slogans, knickknacks, and so forth -- while there is some interest in ecumenicalism, mostly, the idea is "Horray for our side".

In most if not all belief systems called "spiritual", from Aleister Crowley to last week's guest on Oprah, God is held to be not above and separate from His Creation, but permeates it entirely, to the extent that it's difficult to distinguish where one leaves off and the other takes up, or if, as in some views, there's any real distinction at all. In this view, since sin, guilt, travail and all evil is merely an illusion, along with the rest of the observable universe, about all that is left is individual will and consciousness: to quote Heinlein (who may have gotten it from Jack Parsons) "Thou art God."

Central to this system is the primacy of experience, especially ecstatic experience, induced in almost any way possible: chanting, yogic breathing, sensory deprivation, drugs, sex, music, sweating, fasting, animal interactions, etc. Meditation, which, as Aldous Huxley once remarked, is to ecstasy as noonday lunch is to a formal public banquet, forms the other widely held practise. Otherwise, the canvas is blank: spiritually-minded Americans tend to pick and choose their symbols, rituals, and ethics from many cultures and even make up some of their own -- the spiritual supermarket. Rites of passage are freely invented, beliefs that arise are freely tested in the general community, everything is in a state of flux and development and what is really going on is beyond anyone's ability to believe, let alone belief.

Is A.A. religious or spiritual? I would say religious. Although some people stress (with appropriate slogans) that the Higher Power can take any form or be called by any name, it only serves as a placeholder. The real God in an A.A. group is, well, Someone who thinks and sounds like W.G. Wilson's superego, as filtered through the current membership of the group. The Twelve Steps are "suggestions", only in that Wilson wrote they were. In practicality, newbies who try to individualize the program get told "you're not progressed enough to be creative" or "maybe you don't have to follow the Steps, but if you want to live, you'd better!". Neither are individual chapters independent, as are Congregationalist churches in New England, but subject to a Higher, that is, Organizational authority: for one chapter to change its ideas, would take a thoroughgoing overhaul of A.A.'s principles. Which is not happening too soon. Although it's often stated that religions have real estate, spiritual organizations meet in the basement, I find this an altogether artificial distinction: A.A. has too many set rituals, dogmatic principles, and the like to qualify as truly spiritual. Likewise, ecstatic experience is deeply suspect: it's OK to be happy, but they'd want you much more to be content, and as for real, live, out-of-your-mind samadhi, they'd much rather you not talk about it, because then they'd have to talk you out of it.



I'm tired. Let's put on some music. Iggy Pop, his face lined, but never old, dances and leaps, and proudly shows the blue veins that have grown in arms once white with scar tissue...Patti Smith sings of ecstasy, in a video of "Gloria" and proclaims that Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not hers...And Kate Bush makes a Deal with God....




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