Alcoholics Anonymous: A Different Perspective

By Adam Neiblum 01/24/19

Rather than seeking knowledge through scientific methodology to gather more and more evidence regarding the factual attributes of successful recovery, AA emphasizes scripture, tradition, and the word of authority figures.

Group of people sitting and holding hands, praying, Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, religious
Surrender of the personal will, faith in God, confession, prayer and meditation, ultimately even proselytizing and missionary work are promoted as essential attributes of recovery. ID 52416812 © Andrey Popov |

I recently read an essay on another recovery-oriented site, a site whose focus is on people in 12-step recovery yet who are disinclined to religion. The topic was “moments of clarity.” Now, this phrase, for those who have spent years in the 12-step subculture, has obvious connotations. Having the knee-jerk, familiar response to the phrase is one of those cult-like behaviors which make me happy I am no longer an AA member, no longer speaking the lingo nor “drinking the Kool-Aid.” For this free-thinking addict/alcoholic, 60 years old and having spent more of my life in recovery than out, it brought to mind something very different from what was intended. This was a profound and life-changing experience I had, in which the following truths hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks:

  1. I am an atheist.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous is a religion, like Christianity and Islam.
  3. Such religions tend to impede the development of scientific knowledge regarding natural phenomenon.
  4. Alcoholism, addiction, and the process of recovery are entirely natural phenomenon.
  5. AA has a very low success rate.

Before going on, I should make clear that I am not merely another AA-basher. I am a former long-term member and Alcoholics Anonymous was central in my life for decades. I learned a great deal, much of which I utilize to this day. I also mean no disrespect whatsoever to the author of the original essay, and I apologize for being tangential. I have problems with the “program,” but not with any individual members. My focus is on all those who suffer because, like myself, they are forced to choose between the rock of active addiction and the hard place of joining what is essentially a Christian sect.

Alcoholics Anonymous as Religion

“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”

  • Twelve Steps

The chapter We Agnostics is a thinly veiled effort at proselytizing by a devout Christian. Its goal is to use the concept of “open-mindedness” to convince readers to buy into the dualism of old-time religion, with its antiquated belief in the existence of both a natural and a supernatural realm, complete with supernatural entities or “higher” powers. Attaching “as we understood him” to a couple of steps is similarly disingenuous. It is nothing more than a manipulative sales pitch by a professional salesman, one which pales in the shadow of the heavy-handed religiosity of his “12 steps of recovery.” So, for example, in Bill Wilson’s steps you will find: 

God four times,
Him or His four times
Prayer and meditation
Spiritual awakening and
A power greater than ourselves.

Surrender of the personal will, faith in God, confession, prayer and meditation, ultimately even proselytizing and missionary work are promoted as essential attributes of recovery. Here again, the steps promote religious dualism, with its denial of the value of naturalistic, or scientific, knowledge. Even in the 21st century I distinctly recall hearing this erroneous, anti-science perspective espoused in meetings, with god and the supernatural realm presented as the source of all the good stuff, while the natural realm and the animal known as Homo sapiens served as the source of all the bad.

  • Scripture

The highlighting, underlining, and prodigious dog-earing; treating the book as a sacred object like the Quran; studying and re-reading, with study groups like the Bible; carrying it everywhere; quoting and citing as if anything between the covers is self-evidently true or “gospel,” so to speak; and the unwillingness to change a word of the first 164 pages: all of these attest to a belief in the Big Book as the kind of scripture or divine word which serves as the foundation for religious traditions like Christianity, Islam, and others. I can recall many times in the rooms when I heard the view that the Big Book was divinely inspired, the ludicrous notion that a supernatural entity was speaking through Bill Wilson when he wrote Alcoholics Anonymous.

  • Tradition

Rather than seeking knowledge through scientific methodology to gather more and more evidence regarding the factual attributes of successful recovery, AA emphasizes scripture, tradition, and the word of authority figures. These are the criteria that many religions use to justify “knowledge” as they understand it. Ironically, even though America is one of the greatest scientific nations in history, we also suffer a populace which is largely hostile to science and academics. The members of AA comprise a microcosm of this larger population.

  • Faith is NOT a Virtue

Faith is claimed to be a virtue, but in the 12-step context it is actually the acceptance of something for which zero evidence, facts, or data exist. That is, the adulation of ignorance, a trait which walks hand-in-hand with America’s mistrust of science and of academics more generally. This approach teaches us to be mistrustful of science, yet obedient and sheep-like with religious authority. The main reference to science in the “first 164 pages” is one line which states that “science may one day cure alcoholism, but it hasn’t done so yet.” Importantly, this one reference is often read sarcastically, with derisive snickers and mocking asides, illustrating a cocky certainty of its implausibility.

  • Authority and Obedience

As with religions like Christianity and Islam, unquestioned obedience to authority figures is of the utmost importance in Alcoholics Anonymous. We are all familiar with the phrase “take the cotton out of your ears, and put it in your mouth.” In some places this is an actual rule, with newcomers in their first 30, 60, or 90 days advised to only listen. Unquestioned obedience to authority is a major distinction between religious perspectives and secular, humanist, and scientific approaches. The adulation of Bill, of Bob, of circuit speakers and old-timers, of sponsors, the use of quotes as meeting topics, and the current emphasis on temporally-measured sobriety, encouraging both pride and the development of a hierarchy, all convincingly mirrors the religious emphasis upon blind faith and obedience to the words of authority figures.

  • Conservatism

Conservatism in this context means a profound reticence to change. I believe that the Catholic Church recently apologized to Galileo, only 450 years overdue. Both Christianity and Islam still treat women as if we were living in Biblical times. This intransigence, this resistance to progress, is one of the primary characteristics of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA causes people to become narrow-minded and inflexible, unable to consider new, different, or contrary approaches to treatment methods. When I have broached these subjects with current members, they have consistently become defensive and “circled the wagons.”

Religion as Impediment

“So what?” you might ask. “So what if AA is a religion?”

The problem is, as a result of their fundamental dualistic nature, these types of religions stand in the way of us acquiring knowledge and, in particular, cultivating a more naturalistic, scientific understanding of addiction, alcoholism, and the truly essential attributes of recovery.

Problems and Solutions

You admit you have a problem. Then you find a “spiritual solution.” What do you do? In AA, as with Islam and Christianity, you are discouraged from seeking an alternative solution. You are even encouraged to proselytize, to go out and “spread the good news.” Religious converts, recipients of the “one true word,” are trained to be blind, even hostile, to alternatives, particularly naturalistic ones, while enthusiastically promoting the one and only true supernatural solution.

So around 8 or 10 years into sobriety we go and get our counseling certificates, then get a job working or volunteering at a nearby treatment center. The faculty, staff, and volunteers at the facilities, and at the couple of behemoths in the addiction treatment field, are largely AA members, AA trained, and generally convinced that with the 12 steps and our “spiritual solution,” the problem has been solved. I believed this too, for many years. This fundamentally biases the treatment process, leaning it towards 12-step and away from any alternatives.

Conservatism Revisited

Another consequence of AA’s conservative bent is that people in the program become so convinced that the Big Book and the program are perfect exactly as they are, that they do not hear what atheists or skeptics like myself have to say. This is a form of cognitive bias called confirmation bias, which simply refers to how, even when confronted with facts or data challenging their beliefs, people will nonetheless cling to their original views. In fact, people will even double-down on their faulty original position when confronted with fully rational, fact-based alternatives. This bodes ill for our efforts to update recovery by embracing more empirical, evidence-based knowledge, especially if it conflicts with AA tradition, scripture, or authority.

Anti-Naturalistic Thinking

These religious traditions started out as pre-scientific efforts to understand ourselves, the greater cosmos, and our place within it all. Their most significant error was the introduction of the afore-mentioned dualism, an imagined schism between the natural and the supernatural. Ever since Darwin, we have known that the 100% natural animal Homo sapiens builds new knowledge on top of old knowledge, accumulating knowledge over time until we figure out how to solve all manner of worldly, natural problems. This includes curing diseases that were once deemed completely beyond our comprehension or scope, requiring prayer, sacrifices, and incantations to mysterious gods.

Rather than attributing meaning to the words “bless you” when someone sneezes and seeking to bring supernatural elements to bear on the demonic entities which allegedly cause a person to become sick, we have instead discovered the germ theory of disease. I am simply suggesting that we stop thinking in such medieval, archaic terms when it comes to addiction, alcoholism and recovery and instead fully embrace empirical, scientific methods which might yield more fruitful results.

God of the Gaps

The strongest argument for religion as an impediment would be the “god of the gaps.” For millennia humanity has inserted supernatural answers into the gaps in our knowledge. If a hurricane blows or an earthquake hits, god (or, if you prefer, a higher power) did it. However, over time, naturalistic answers have replaced supernatural answers, one by one, consistently, and with far more accuracy.

Complex psycho-social maladies like ours are particularly mysterious and therefore highly prone to such supernatural interpretations. AA’s founding fathers were steeped in a social context in which radical personal transformations were deemed mysterious and supernatural. We had absolutely no idea what was involved, so we labeled such experiences as “psychic” (Silkworth) or “spiritual” (Jung), which merely perpetuates the fallacious dualism, as a result of both the unclear meanings and supernatural undertones of such key terms.

Over the course of human history our questions have found their best, most accurate answers not in the supernatural but instead in knowledge gained through approaches emphasizing the scientific method. As atheist author Greta Cristina and others have wisely observed, there exist precisely zero accounts of this process moving in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, AA remains an obstinate hold out.

It’s time to embrace facts and data, to give science a real shot at addressing this global scourge. AA members must become more open to approaching the problem anew. If, when confronted with Galileo holding that the earth revolved around the sun, the church had simply said “well, let’s check out what the evidence says,” that would have been great. But they did not. Instead, like AA members have done to me—and I’m no Galileo—they cry “trouble maker” and play hear no evil, see no evil…

Alcoholics Anonymous as a Failure

None of the above would matter if Alcoholics Anonymous really, truly worked.

But it does not.

I was told by the senior counselor in my second treatment center that only 10% of us would “make it”. That’s an admitted failure rate of 90%. This was not merely manipulative sales-speak. Such extremely poor success rates are similar to what a variety of differing studies have found. We all know this, anecdotally. If you look, you can see that the only thing busier than the coffee pot at an AA meeting is the revolving door. And such disheartening research does not even scratch the surface of our failure, as most of the world’s millions of addicts and alcoholics never even darken the doorways of AA in the first place, for a number of very good reasons.

“It works if you work it” is a classic example of the kind of un-falsifiable claim which characterizes religious traditions. Scientific claims, on the other hand, are characterized by falsifiability, which simply means that they can be tested. Then we can either discard them, modify them, or build upon them. It is by utilizing precisely such scientific approaches that we have discovered cures for polio, small pox, malaria, and so much more. The more complex, psycho-social disorders, such as depression or bi-polar disorder, are likewise yielding to our efforts to address them as purely natural phenomenon.

By any and all measures, there is a staggeringly large amount of room for improvement. The religious perspective merely serves to block our way at this point in history. In the short time it took you to read this essay, thousands of lives were shattered or ended. It’s time to move on and aggressively seek empirical, naturalistic solutions to this deadly global scourge.


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Adam Neiblum is an author living in Santa Cruz, California. He has a B.A. in Philosophy with an emphasis in Religious Thought from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published two books: Common Sense Recovery: an Atheist's Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been used by many to help bridge the gap between secular free-thinking and Alcoholics Anonymous; and Unexceptional: Darwin, Atheism & Human Nature, which considers the wider issues regarding the complex historical relationship between religion and science. Adam has been a frequent contributor to and He can be reached on Facebook or Twitter.