By Jesse Beach
“AA is spiritual, not religious—now hold my hand while we pray.”
This was the kind of message Barry Hazle faced at a California 12-step-based treatment program he was ordered to attend in 2007 as part of his parole from drug charges. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages prayer to a “God as we understand Him” for help getting and staying sober. As an atheist, Hazle asked for alternatives. He was given two: Buy into the 12 Steps as written or go back to jail. He objected and a California court agreed that Hazle’s First Amendment rights had been violated. Hazlewill receive a settlement of almost $2 million.
An estimated 69 percent of Americans believe in some form of One God, according to the 2012 Pew Research “Nones” on the Rise survey. But atheists, while still a small minority, increased from four percent to seven percent since the previous Pew survey—there were 12 million self-identifying American atheists in 2007, increasing to 22 million in 2012. It varies by region: If you live in the Northeast, 54 percent of you believe in a personal higher power. In the South, 86 percent of y’all do. Elsewhere, one in four Canadians don’t believe in God and half of Brits are non-believers. And under-30s are everywhere more agnostic or atheist than their elders. Although there’s plenty of life in God yet, especially in the U.S., the trend is clear: AA must become more accepting of non-believers or shrink.
None of this would surprise James Christopher, who got sober in AA in 1978, then broke from the pack in 1986 to found Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). “AA is a religion in denial,” says Christopher. Interestingly, AA itself was born half a century earlier of several Oxford Group members—who themselves broke away from the Oxford Group, because they found it too religious.
Several U.S. courts at state and federal level have at different times agreed that AA is religious in nature. Part of the New York Court of Appeals’ ruling in 1996, for example, stated: “[A]dherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization.” As such, inmates and parolees cannot legally be ordered to attend AA (although as the Hazle case shows, it frequently happens).
Now, if you’re an atheist or agnostic AA member like me, the point isn’t whether or not others say the 12 Steps are religious. The question is: If I want recovery from addiction, can the 12 Steps work for me without my having to accept someone else’s beliefs or deny my own?
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