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Published on Friday, May 12, 2000 © 2000 Madison Newspapers, Inc. Used with permission

Byline: John-Brian Paprock


This summer Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) will celebrate 65 years of existence.  Millions worldwide have achieved lasting sobriety through AA.  Over 90% of alcohol and drug treatment facilities in the U.S. prepare patients for life in AA or related programs.  AA’s 12 Steps and 12 Traditions have been adapted and successfully applied to the plethora of addictions and related syndromes that have plagued modern humanity.


From its beginnings, AA has worked hard to be a “spiritual, not religious program.”  Has it succeeded?   Certainly not according to several court decisions in the 1990s that ruled that no one could be forced to attend 12 Step meeting because of “the religious nature of the 12 Step program.”  


In AA meetings, discussion of organized religion is discouraged, but discussion of spiritual wisdom, especially spiritual experience and insight, is encouraged. Even the word “God” is optional, although half of the 12 Steps reference God “as we understood Him,” or “a Power greater than ourselves” or “Higher Power.”


Even though people of nearly every belief system on the planet have been able to apply the 12 Step program for improved life without compromising their religion or culture, the spiritual focus has ruffled feathers on all sides of religion. Is it too religious? Too Christian?  Too patriarchal?  Not Christian enough? 


Last year, New York officials were ordered to pay a symbolic $1 for requiring an atheist to attend AA meetings that involved “prayers and other religious content.”   A few years ago, Oakhill Correctional Facility in nearby Oregon had to stop requiring inmates to attend 12 Step meetings as part of their rehabilitation for a similar reason. 


SMART Recovery ® (formerly Rational Recovery) uses a different approach than AA, while it isn’t against spirituality or AA, it does not advocate it either.  Rather it leaves that to the individual.  Dr. Henry Steinberger, the professional advisor to the Madison group, says that AA’s basic premise suggests there is only one way to be alcoholic and, therefore, only one way to recover.  He points out that according to AA’s own statistics, 90% of AA attendees drop out in the first year.


Steinberger cites studies that not all of the dropouts return to alcoholic drinking.  In SMART Recovery ®, alcoholism is treated not as a disease, not as a spiritual problem, but as a habit.  Steinberger, who is Jewish, explains, “To stop drinking, alcoholics need to un-learn the habit.  If spirituality helps, that’s great, but it is not necessary.  What’s needed is practical responsibility and rational cognitive training.”


Steinberger also stated that 12 Step programs might be contra-indicated for women with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  He suggests that regular AA meetings may be too confrontational for some cases.  “Women with PTSD need to find empowerment not admit powerlessness (which is the first step of AA’s 12 Steps).”


The 16 Steps to Empowerment is a needed feminist alternative to AA that expands on the basic concepts of the 12 Steps and makes them more accessible to women.  The Madison meeting is for women only.


Moonshadow (not her real name), a Wiccan High Priestess, says, “the spirituality of the 12 Steps is steeped in Christian theology.  As a Pagan priestess and therapist, I have a hard time arguing with a client who refuses to attend meetings on the grounds that they cannot stomach the concepts or wording of some of the steps.”  She says simply changing a few words is too simplistic.  “It doesn’t address other more inherent discrepancies with Pagan theology which are built into the conceptual framework of the 12-step program.”


On the other side, some believe the 12 Step programs are not Christian enough, especially because belief in God is optional and there is no specific theology. “Generally, anytime you have something of a spiritual nature, especially when it’s vague, people are going to fill in the blanks and all sorts of things can happen,” says Rev. Rich Maurer associate pastor of Sauk Prairie Evangelical Free Church. 


Is AA a breeding ground for various new religious movements and cults?  Rev. Maurer would not say directly, but “where God is relative, it’s whatever I as an individual think or feel it is. So, I’m not surprised people would move in that direction.”  He supports the notion of support groups, like AA, “but ultimately without Jesus Christ you’re not going to have lasting inner change.”


There are currently at least three Christian 12 Step groups meeting in the Madison area.  Like in SMART and the 16 Steps to Empowerment groups, many members include AA or similar 12 Step meetings in their weekly meeting attendance.  In the Christian groups, the bible is used openly and scriptural references are read along side each of the 12 Steps.


Erv B., contact for the Alcoholics Victorious meeting at Lake City Church, says the group, founded in 1991, continues to meet regularly despite wildly fluctuating numbers. “We’re a small group and the church is very supportive of our purpose.” He adds, “No one has to believe in Jesus Christ to come to our meetings, but they should be prepared for others to talk about Christ in their own recovery.”


“I think that recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are one of the largest unreached people or group for the Christian Church.” says Rev. Bob Groth, pastor at Vineyard Community Church.  Groth often leads weekly discussion groups on 12 Step spirituality as a volunteer chaplain at Meriter’s NewStart program.  He also acknowledges a positive value of letting people come to their own understanding of a Higher Power.  In fact, the chaplains that rotate leading the discussion groups at NewStart are from a variety of faiths and approaches.  “We try to give hope if one is an atheist, open spirituality to them. If someone is on the other side with all the cliques of a born-again Christian, the challenge is the same – to incorporate spirituality in their life that is going to bring lasting sobriety.” 


In Sharon VanderZyl’s office at the Center for Christian Counseling there is a sign that reads, “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell.  Spirituality is for those that have been there.”  VanderZyl, therapist and director of the Center, regularly recommends 12 Step meetings to her clients, even though she hears complaints from her clients who don’t feel free to speak about Christ as their Higher Power.  “What has happened is when they have spoken of Christ, they get sanctioned by the group, almost persecuted in some cases.”  She also refers clients to Christian 12 Step groups, but with caution.  “One of the dangers of Christian 12 Step groups is that they can become really exclusive and judgmental.”  She points out that the Christian groups that have been the most successful are those that hold the original ideal of AA. “The beauty of the 12 Step program is that it is inclusive in its ideal state, that it does really touch across spiritualities.” says VanderZyl.  


Could AA be one of the most significant and influential religious or spiritual movements of the 20th century?  It has certainly raised some eyebrows. AA’s success over the past 65 years has brought widespread attention to a subtle distinction between spirituality and religion, allowing great diversity of individual beliefs and at the same time maintaining group cohesion without religion.


As Rev. Groth clarifies, “Spirituality is not believing more or praying more or going to church more.  It is a power released in us rather than the outward trappings of religion.” But as VanderZyl points out, “It is possible to put them together in a healthy way.  Some 12 Step groups seem to disparage religion, almost throwing it out completely, but it is possible to be religious and spiritual.”  




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