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In the past year, more than 140,000 people in the United States have died from excessive alcohol use. What's a struggling person to do? It's tempting to recommend people attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. They are easily accessible and free. The AA World Organization estimates there are nearly 123,000 groups worldwide. While millions have found AA to be helpful, it is impossible to estimate how many others left AA or never even passed through its doors. A reason many give for leaving AA or never attending is the belief that AA is a religious program.

While AA claims it is a misconception that it is a religious program, courts are finding that people who have been court-ordered to a treatment program that uses the 12 Steps of AA or ordered to attend AA meetings have their First Amendment rights violated. "God" is invoked in five of the 12 steps. Though there is the qualifier, "as we understood Him," a distinct Christian-centric conception of God is omnipresent. Anyone not sharing Christian beliefs must either block out the language or translate it into something more familiar and hopefully useful. The reality is that in many parts of the United States, AA is the only game in town; there are just not any nonreligious options available.

The preamble to Alcoholics Anonymous states "our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety." It is fair to ask what AA could do to help more people to achieve sobriety. Could AA change to become not Christian-centric?

While most early members of AA were Christian men arguing for a more intentionally Christian focus, Henry "Hank" Parkhurst was a vocal critic of all "the God language." He argued that "God" should not be mentioned at all because it would deter many people from membership. After heated arguments, Parkhurst convinced Bill Wilson to use the term "Higher Power," as well as to add "as we understood Him," as a qualifier to "God," in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous (1939). Wilson very reluctantly accepted these suggestions and only later did he admit those changes have "proved lifesavers for many an alcoholic."

As is often the case with a movement or program, there's concern about sustainability. Early members created a group that evolved into the General Service Conference. They also made a distinction between "The Program" and "The Fellowship." The Program comprises Alcoholics Anonymous, in which the Steps are enumerated, the program described and stories of members appear. There are also other approved publications. Since the second edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (1955), no substantive changes to the original text had been allowed by the AA General Service Conference, which has the effect of making it a sacred text. A recent change brings me some optimism. By an advisory action, the General Service Conference changed the language of AA's being a "fellowship of men and women," to a "fellowship of people."

The Fellowship is people who identify as members of AA. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Unlike individual franchises operating under a corporate structure that requires uniformity in all matters across all locations, each AA group is autonomous and independent. Some AA groups are very traditional, with meetings that closely resemble those held by the original Christian men. Other groups may not read "How It Works," and the Steps as written, instead substituting "Higher Power," or changing gendered pronouns. Change often begins in the individual groups.

The conference could make revisions or approve new texts that are less Christian-centric. It could change "the God language." Individual groups can make different decisions. Less-Christian texts should not be seen as a threat to those for whom AA has worked. The Christian God can still be a higher power. AA as both the Program and the Fellowship has a responsibility to make this happen. The Responsibility Statement of AA (1965) affirms that "I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that, I am responsible." As individuals and as members of AA groups who can participate in various service positions within the General Service Conference, we are responsible.

Peg O'Connor is a professor of philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and the author of two books on addiction and recovery, "Higher and Friendly Powers" and "Life on the Rocks."


A follow-up from the author

(Added July 12, 2023, following the article's initial publication on July 9 and response from readers.)

Bill Wilson did not create the expression, "higher power," but rather encountered it in William James's "The Varieties of Religious Experience," published in 1902. Wilson called James a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous even though he had died more than 25 years before its creation. James offers numerous examples of higher and friendly powers; the use of the plural is significant. James admits that "we Christians" call this higher power "God" but that moral principles, human decency, patriotism and a better version of yourself can be a higher power. James is clear a higher power does not do anything to us but rather enables us to do things.

William James worried about one person's spiritual experience becoming the basis of a religion or movement, and Wilson came to share this worry. Bill Wilson noted that even he might be excommunicated by AAs if he tried to change the Steps, which is why he wrote "The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions" (1953). In 1962, Wilson wrote:


As time passes, our book literature has a tendency to get more and more frozen — a tendency for conversion into something like dogma. This is a trait of human nature which I'm afraid I can do little about. We may as well face the fact that AA will always have its fundamentalists, absolutists, and relativists.


My hope is both the Program and Fellowship can resist this hardening. AA has been life-saving for millions, and it could be for millions more suffering acutely.

— Peg O'Connor