Item Details

‘God As We Understood Him’: Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ in Alcoholics Anonymous

Issue: Vol 22 No. 2 (2019) Religion, Spirituality and Addiction Recovery

Journal: Implicit Religion

Subject Areas: Religious Studies

DOI: 10.1558/imre.37778


Members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) draw upon beliefs, practices, and experiences they deem spiritual in order to help them get and stay sober. This article traces how AA emerged from its evangelical parent to become a “spiritual rather than religious organization” by encouraging members to engage with “God as we understood Him.” Interviews with thirty-four current and former AA members in the greater Los Angeles area, as well as ethnographic observation at AA meetings and related events, reveal how a significant number of modern AAs have adopted a personal “spiritual but not religious” orientation, seeking a healing truth outside of traditional religious organizations. Emerging from the Twelve Steps and sometimes in imitation of one of AA’s founders, this perennialist orientation touts a loving and forgiving Higher Power and a notion of spirituality as a profound interconnection with other alcoholics, challenging scholarly assumptions about narcissism and social disengagement in contemporary spirituality.

Author: Jennifer Lois Hahn

View Original Web Page

References :

Ammerman, Nancy. 2014. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anonymous. 2001 [1939]. Alcoholics Anonymous. Fourth edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.

———. 1985 [1957]. Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.

———. 1981. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: The AA Grapevine and Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.

———. 1984. “Pass It On”: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. 2014. “2014 Membership Survey.”

———. 2019. “Estimates of A.A. Groups and Members As of January 1, 2019.”

B., Dick. 1998. The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works. Kihei, Maui: Paradise Research.

———. 2010. “‘God as We Understood Him’: The A.A. Story.”

Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swindler, and Steven Tipton. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bellah, R. and R. Madsen. 1996. “Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership.” The Christian Century 113(16): 510515.

Bender, Courtney. 2010. The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cannon, Eoin. 2013. The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Cutsinger, James. 2007. “Perennial Philosophy and Christianity.”

Dossett, Wendy. 2018. “Twelve Step Mutual Aid: Spirituality, Vulnerability, and Recovery.” In New Religious Movements and Counselling: Academic, Professional and Personal Perspectives, edited by Sarah Harvey, Silke Streidinger, and James A. Beckford, 221–235. Abingdon: Routledge.

Heelas, Paul. 2008. Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism. Malden, MA: Backwell.

Huxley, Aldous. 2009. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: HarperCollins.

James, William. 2004 [1902]. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Johnson, T. and E. Robinson. 2008. “Issues in Measuring Spirituality and Religiousness in Alcoholics Anonymous.” In Research on Alcoholics Anonymous and Spirituality in Addiction Recovery. Volume 18 of Recent Developments in Alcoholism, edited by Marc Galanter and Lee Ann Kaskutas, 167–187. New York: Springer.

Kelly, John F., Robert L. Stout, Molly Magill, J. Scott Tonigan, and Maria E. Pagano. 2011. “Spirituality in Recovery: A Lagged Mediational Analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Principal Theoretical Mechanism of Behavior Change.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 35(3): 454–463.

Kurtz, Ernest. 1991. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

The Layman with a Notebook. 1933. “What is the Oxford Group?” Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lipka, Michael and Gecewicz, Claire. 2017. “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual But Not Religious.” Pew Research Center: Fact Tank. 6 September.

Mercadante, Linda. 2014. Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oman, Doug. 2013. “Defining Religion and Spirituality.” In Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, second Edition, edited by Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park, 23–47. New York: Guilford.

Parsons, William and Fuller, Robert. 2018. “Spiritual but Not Religious: A Brief Introduction.” In Being Spiritual But Not Religious: Past, Present, Future(s), edited by William Parsons, 145–128. Abingdon: Routledge.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schmidt, Leigh E. 2005. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. New York: HarperCollins.

Shoemaker, Samuel and Shoemaker, Helen. 1965. Extraordinary Living for Ordinary Men. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Taves, Ann. 2016. Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths. Princeton University Press.

Travis, Trysh. 2009. The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Wilson, Bill. 1938a. “Wilson’s Original Story.” Original manuscript located at Stepping Stones, William Griffith Wilson (WGW) collection 103, Box 3, Folder 3, Items 1 through 36. 

———. 1938b. Letter from Bill W. to Mr. Charles P., 7 January. Alcoholic Foundation, Box 59, Folder B, 31-34. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office Archives.

Zemore, S. 2008. “An Overview of Spirituality in AA (and Recovery).” In Research on Alcoholics Anonymous and Spirituality in Addiction Recovery. Recent Developments in Alcoholism, edited by Lee Ann Kaskutas and Marc Galanter, 111–123.

Zinnbauer, B., K. Pargament, and A. Scott. 1999. “The Emerging Meanings of Religiousness and Spirituality: Problems and Prospects.” Journal of Personality 67(6): 889–919.