Is AA Too Religious for Generation Z?

By Jesse Beach 01/29/19

"What I try to teach is: if you don’t buy into any kind of a supernatural higher power, navigate the 12-step world, filtering the god-stuff out, working the program in your own way; there is lots that really works."

Group of teens generation z contemplating if AA is religious
The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population. ID 10400858 © Monkey Business Images |

Are today’s mutual-aid recovery groups ready to satisfy Generation-next?

“More than any other generation before them, Gen Z does not assert a religious identity. They might be drawn to things spiritual, but with a vastly different starting point from previous generations, many of whom received a basic education on the Bible and Christianity. And it shows: The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population.”

Released early this year, Barna Group’s Generation-Z Report (Americans born between 1999 and 2015) surveyed over 2,000 13 to 18-year-olds. The oldest of this generation turn 20 in 2019.

According to AA’s most recent triennial membership survey, 1% of AA is under 21—that’s about 20,000 sober teenagers in AA rooms right now. What’s my personal affinity with this demographic? It’s two-fold: I have two millennial children and one 18-year-old stepson; secondly, while I am a grey-haired Baby Boomer, I was a teen at my first 12-step meeting. My 20th birthday was 1980, three months shy of my fourth anniversary clean and sober.

I was a second-generation AA member and—like Barna’s youth focus group—my worldview seemed incompatible with the old fogies of 12-step rooms. My mother mused about finding god’s will for her from meditation or her daily horoscope. She was such a Virgo, you know. Horoscopes, higher powers, legends of Sasquatch, these were all fictional symbols as far as I was concerned. Reasonable people didn’t take such constructs literally, did they?

Bob K, like me, is a second-generation AA. He’s currently between historical book projects; Key Players in AA History will soon have a prequel. Bob’s follow-up research will produce a book about pre-AA addiction and treatment. At age 40, Bob made it into AA as a result of his dad 12-stepping him. He also was uncomfortable with the emphasis on "God." 

“When I was a month sober, it was ‘God-this, God saved me’ and I was going to put my resignation in. I didn’t think I could stand it in AA any longer. I went to the internet of the day—which back then was the library—and I looked for non-religious alternatives to AA. They had them in California but nothing in Ontario Canada. So it was AA or nothing. If I tried to brave it alone, I’d be drunk; I knew it.”

Today, Bob enjoys the likeminded company at his Secular AA home group, Whitby Freethinkers, which meets in the local suburban library just East of Toronto. 

If I were confronting addiction/recovery as a teen today, I wonder if I would go to AA or NA? If AA was once “the last house on the block,” today it’s one house in a subdivision of mutual-aid choices. Today, newcomers have access to Refuge Recovery, SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), or Medically Assisted Treatment, none of which existed in the 1970s.

On Practically Sane, therapist Jeffrey Munn states: “I like to take a practical approach … I’m not a fan of the ‘fluff’ and flowery language that is often associated with the world of psychology and self-help.” Jeffrey came into the rooms at 20, stayed sober for 2 ½ years, relapsed, came back and is now 13 years clean and sober.

“I was mandated to three 12-step meetings per week to stay in the program I was in. Since I was young I have been agnostic. I wanted to find a higher power that was common sense-based, but in the rooms I felt pulled towards a more dogmatic spiritual idea of higher power. Back then, I needed to come up with my own conception of what was happening on a psychological level." Recently, Jeffrey wrote and published Staying Sober Without God: the Practical 12 Steps to Long Term Recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction.

“I looked at SMART Recovery,” Jeffrey tells The Fix. “I looked at Moderation Management, too—that one struck me as being an organized resentment against AA—I wasn’t feeling it. When it comes down to social support and a practical plan of action, it’s hard to beat 12-step programs. What I try to teach is: if you don’t buy into any kind of a supernatural higher power, navigate the 12-step world, filtering the god-stuff out, working the program in your own way; there is lots that really works.”

Barna reports, “Nearly half of teens, on par with Millennials, say, ‘I need factual evidence to support my beliefs.’” Jeffrey hopes Staying Sober Without God—which joins a growing secular 12-step recovery offering—offers the rational narrative today’s youth crave. Barna calls today’s youth “the first truly post-Christian generation [in America].”

Certified Master Addiction Counselor David B. Bohl of Milwaukee understands the value of other-oriented care. David tells The Fix: “As head of a 20-bed coed dual-diagnosis treatment center, emerging adults, 18 to 25 years old, came into our care. I wouldn’t say that they universally shrugged off the 12-step approach but almost universally, in reaction to our volunteers, alumni, and traditional AA community, younger clients didn’t want what the volunteers and alumni had. And I wouldn’t say it was the religiosity always. Sometimes it was an age-thing or life approach. So, our recovery management function became that much more important in terms of building individualized treatment that suits everyone.

“In the USA, 75% of all residential treatment centers identify as 12-step facilitators,” David tells us. “In the simplest form, our job is to introduce people to the language and the concept of the 12 steps and then to introduce the clients to support groups or people in support groups when they are discharged from acute care.

Where trauma is involved—religious trauma in particular—traditional AA language and rituals trigger that shame they feel from negative formal religion experiences.”

Let’s put this overbearing religion caution to a real-life test: Suwaida F was the second oldest of 11 children to Somalian refugee parents who fled to Canada in the 1980s.

“In Kindergarten I didn’t have to wear a hijab; my parents weren’t super religious. I went to an Islamic school in grade one. It was normal for teachers to have belts with them, they would hit you; child abuse was normalized. They didn’t really teach us that much math, science, history. The Islamic teachers weren’t that educated. My parents took me out and put me in public school. Then, some of my mom’s Somalian-Canadian friends started moving their kids to Egypt. My friends would stay in Egypt two years, finish the Qur’an and the girls came back wearing burqas and head-scarves. Some Muslim friends would come to school in their hijab, take them off and put them back on when they went home. We called them The Transformers.

My parents really wanted us to learn the Qur’an; I don’t speak Arabic, so it was difficult. And I never believed it. I asked my mom and dad, ‘How do you know that this stuff is real?’ They got frustrated and mad and said, ‘Don’t ever ask that question again.’ I knew it wasn’t real. Mom got more and more religious. Pictures of her at age 19 -- she wore no head-scarf when she was my age. My mom expected me to be religious and I rebelled. I had to leave home.”

Suwaida misses her sisters. She feels unwelcome in the family home unless she is dressed in the Islamic custom and that wouldn’t be true to herself. Away from home, Suwaida found the welcoming community she craved in the booze and cocaine culture.

“It wasn’t a matter of having no money; I had no sense of hope. People at work didn’t know I was hopped from shelter to shelter at night. One winter I was told, ‘Suwaida, you’ve been restricted from every youth shelter in the city of Toronto.’” As addiction progressed, Suwaida recalls an ever-descending patterns of compromises, bad relationships and regrets.

“Today, it’s like I still never unpack my suitcase; I’m always ready to go.” During a stay at St. Joe’s detox, Suwaida went to her first NA meeting.

“At 7 PM, a woman spoke. I made it clear that I thought it was stupid; I wouldn’t share. At the end, everyone was holding hands to pray and I said, ‘I’m not holding any of your hands.’ I didn’t go back. When I was discharged, I went drinking at the bar with my suitcase, not knowing where I was going to stay that night.

My second meeting I consider my first, because I chose it. I thought I should go to AA. I googled atheist or freethinker AA to avoid a repeat of my NA experience. I found Beyond Belief Agnostics and Freethinkers Group on the University of Toronto campus. I went there last February. For a while, I had wine in my travel-mug, and I didn’t say anything. In August I felt like the woman beside me knew I was drinking, and I ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’ So, my next meeting, I went sober. I’ve been clean and sober ever since.”

Despite the child-violence of Islamic school and rejection from her family, Suwaida isn’t anti-theist. “I do believe in God or in something. I feel like I’m always looking for signs. I don’t believe in a god in the sky but to say there’s nothing beyond all this doesn’t make any sense to me. Sometimes the freakiest things happen. Maybe it’s because I’m a storyteller, I try to make a story out of everything; you think of someone, then they phone you, is that random?

I feel a part-of in secular or mainstream AA meetings. My self-talk still sounds like, ‘Don’t share Suwaida, you have nothing to add.’ Maybe it comes from not being able to express myself when I was growing up. I have no sense of self. I guess I have something special to offer but I don’t know how to articulate it. It’s hard; I have limited self-confidence.”

“Give them their voice; listen to them,” is Kevin Schaefer’s approach. He co-hosts the podcast Don’t Die Wisconsin. He’s also a recovery coach.

“I’ve been in Recovery 29+ years. I’m a substance abuse counselor and I got into addiction treatment through sober living. When I started working in a Suboxone clinic, I came to realize that AA can’t solve everything. I always come from a harm reduction standpoint: meth, cocaine, benzos; I ask, ‘Can you just smoke pot?’ and we start building the trust there.

Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) is geared towards this generation. Most kids coming through my door know a lot about MAT, more so than people in AA with the biases and stigma that they bring. Kids sometimes know more than the front-line social workers. Their friends are on MAT, that’s how they gather their information (not to say their information is all correct). But a lot of therapists don’t understand medication. Medication can be a ticket to survival out on the streets.”

The Fix asked Kevin his opinion on the best suited mutual-aid group for this generation.

“Most of the generation you’re talking about walks in with anxiety and defiantly won’t do groups.” We talked about the role of online video/voice or text meetings for a tech-native generation. “Yes—where appropriate. Women especially, because from what I’ve seen, most females have suffered from trauma. I have heard women who prefer online recovery; that make sense to me. I’ve been to; as professionals we have a duty to know what’s out there. And there are some crazies online.

If someone has an Eastern philosophy bent, I’ll send them to Refuge Recovery; I’ve been there. If I can, I’ll set them up with somebody that I know can help them. And let’s not forget that some youth, if Christianity is your thing, Celebrate Recovery is amazing — talk about a community that wraps themselves around the substance user. There are movie nights, food, all kinds of extracurricular activities. The SMART Recovery Movement? Excellent. SMART momentum is building in Milwaukee. They are goal-oriented and the person gets supported whether they’re on Suboxone or, in one case I know, micro-dosing with LSD for depression; they’ll be supported either way. My goal with youth is: ‘Try to get to one meeting this month; start slow.’ Don’t set the bar too high and if they enjoy it, then great.

The 12-step meeting I go to, it’s a men’s meeting. There are people there on medication and they don’t get blow-back. I wish more of AA was like this. When I came in, almost 30 years ago now, I saw all the God-stuff on the walls and I thought, ‘Nah, this isn’t going to work’ but thank G… (laughs), thank the Group of Drunks who said, ‘You don’t have to believe in that.’ The range in my meeting is broad—Eastern philosophy, Native American practices, Yoga, I was invited to Transcendental Meditation meetings at members’ houses. I was fortunate to fall into this group. You know, the first book my sponsor gave me was The Tao of Physics—not The Big Book—it was this 70’s book with Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, correlated to physics and contemporary science.”

So, as to the question that kicked this off, some mutual aid meetings are ready to meet the taste of a new generation; results may vary. Who’s heard: “If you haven’t met anyone you don’t like in AA, you haven’t gone to enough meetings”?

The reverse is true, also. If the peer-to-peer meetings I’ve sampled seem too narrow or dogmatic, maybe my search for just the right fit isn’t over. And if I don’t want a face-to-face meeting, there’s always Kevin’s podcast, virtual communities like The Fix, or I can order one of Bob or David or Jeffrey’s books if that’s more to my taste.

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Jesse Beach may be a contrarian. Clean and sober since the disco-era, Jesse finds the prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power notion a wee-bit superstitious for his pallet. Still, he finds a secular view of 12-Step culture no impediment to contented recovery. As a rebel, he's no follower either. Anonymity is so-last-century in this next-Gen smiley faces and voices recovery culture. Jesse's not shy; he just finds the message is the medium - not the messenger. Be the face and voice of recovery; have at it; Jesse is kickin' it old-school. Psst, Jesse Beach might not even be his real name. 

Besides addiction/recovery lifestyle journalism, Jesse's word-smithary is also found in music, finance and cue-sport magazines and websites. Jesse hosts a radio show on Sirius XM called, IndieCan Radio, "the best music you've never heard!" When he's away from his computer, you'll find him mountain climbing, cooking or songwriting.

Lurk or make contact with Jesse B on Rebellion Dogs at his website, Twitter, and Facebook.