Religion, Secularism, and Spirituality - How Modern AA Gets It Wrong

By Paul R. 07/03/19

AA’s founders did not intend for AA to be religious, and unlike many modern-day members, they embraced a broad view of a Higher Power.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, can be used as higher power in Alcoholics Anonymous
Why can’t a Flying Spaghetti Monster be as believable as any other deity?

The role of a Higher Power (hereinafter, HP) looms large in today’s recovery landscape. AA adopts it as the centerpiece of its program. Rehabs that adopt the 12 steps as a major part of their treatment protocol do, as well. Even secular groups such as SMART don’t discourage their members from prayer or spiritual belief.

AA's Founders: Higher Power Should Transcend Religion

But to equate religion with HP would be disingenuous and simplistic. AA’s founders intentionally chose the term “HP” because it transcends religion, while encompassing some of its aspects such as spiritual beliefs, meditation and mindfulness.

In a 1961 letter to Bill Wilson, Carl Jung wrote Spiritus Contra Spiritum which, roughly translated, means: Alcohol addiction can be fought with spirituality. Further, in the same letter, Jung says: "You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism." You can see that Jung clearly leaves room for a secular path to recovery (namely: fellowship of friends, knowledge).

What is really striking about Jung’s observation is that it clearly states that an addict is not limited to just a religious/spiritual HP. Not only does Jung allow for non-religious HP, he sees no need to pit the religious against the non-religious, offering the possibility of a symbiotic relationship between them. Bill Wilson seems to agree with Jung on this matter. And while people may point out that in later chapters of the Big Book, Bill speaks of God, it is clear that “God” is simply what Bill chooses to call his HP.

The Big Book overtly allows for secular approaches to recovery and never flat-out (unlike modern-day AA and its copycats) rejects alternative views. Again, the founders chose to call their HPs God, yet Wilson understood and shared Jung’s thoughts on the matter.

Many Modern Meetings Equate Higher Power with God

This is not, however, what modern-day AA is about. In many meetings the newcomer is taught that the 12 steps are Gospel and HP is God (hence, the incessant recitation of the Lord’s Prayer). Yet half of the original fellowship was cut from agnostic cloth, according to Wilson himself (and including himself). Had they all been religious zealots, there never would have been the need for AA in the first place. The Oxford groups would have soldiered on en masse. The authors go on to say that their understanding of the Spirit is all-inclusive and never exclusive, and this is exactly where modern-day AA went astray from the original meaning of the Big Book.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander, and if one adopts a broad view of HP (as envisioned by Wilson and supported by Jung), then the following belief should be a fair game.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (hereinafter, CFSM) although widely-known is not an officially recognized religion in the U.S. However, The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides fertile ground for many quasi-religious views, however lighthearted or crazy (which religions are not?), and who is to say that this particular imaginary friend is somehow less credible than any other?

If someone believes strongly enough, they will tap into whatever force they believe in, whether they are Christians believing in the power of Christ, Wiccans believing in the power of nature and the Goddess (or Goddesses), Atheists believing in the power of their own mind or of science, or Pastafarians believing in the FSM. And let us not forget Jung’s trifecta.

Yes, some religions make it easier than others. The more developed a set of religious dogmas is, the handier it becomes when tangling with the unknown. Modern-day religions are nuanced clever hoaxes that provide a detailed roadmap to their particular Higher Power to all comers for a small fee (usually a tax-free, labor-free existence plus a little something for the priest).

AA and other fellowships are not that far behind. Any modern-day 12-step-based program has a religion-based Higher Power front and center. Passing the plate across the aisles is so familiar that it triggers a muscle memory when reaching for the wallet. The elders lead the chorus, the speaker preaches (excuse me, shares) and a religious-like unity bordering on trance ensues.

Founders Wanted AA to Be Accessible to Believers and Non-Believers

And while the CFSM is obviously intended to be tongue in cheek, there are some members who take it seriously. And even if others don’t, who is to say that the Pastafari faith is not capable of tapping into their Higher Power in order to heal? Why would it not be in the spiritual tool kit that AA (and by extension all other “A”s) so often references? Why can’t a Flying Spaghetti Monster be as believable as any other man-created deity? After all, they are all equally unprovable and some are even more far-fetched than the Carb-Laden Creator.

When the founders settled on a Higher Power described as a “God of your understanding,” they were most likely not envisioning a flying spaghetti monster. They weren’t envisioning anything at all. They left that up to each of us to choose. And they intended to leave the door open to anyone with a desire to stop drinking. That includes believers and non-believers, alike.

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Paul R. is a writer in recovery. He is an avid student of all things addiction and its interplay with mental health issues. He lives near Baltimore, MD.