A friend of mine who attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings read my earlier post about ‘nones,’ that is, people who don’t affiliate with any organized religion. He asked whether I considered him a ‘none;” or, another way of posing the question would be, whether Alcoholics Anonymous is a religion. I took quite a while to think about that. After I emailed him my answer I got his permission to share it, because I thought it might be of interest to Interfaith Reflections readers.
Thanks, friend, for reading my post about the ‘nones.’ You asked whether AA attenders are ‘nones’. Well, clearly not if they are active in a religious community as well as AA. But, I take your question to be: If they are not active in a religious community, is their participation in AA tantamount to religious affiliation?
Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Religion?
Some AAers, I’m sure, would say certainly not, that the reference to a ‘higher power’ in AA literature does not imply religious belief. It’s simply a way of expressing a hard-won humility. In any case, belief in God or gods is not a necessary attribute of religion. Buddhism is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest religions, yet it does not contain belief in God or gods. So, one cannot determine whether or not AA is a religion by deciding whether or not the AA ‘higher power’ language is theistic. One must decide by other means.
Other AAers might say that their fellowship is a kind of religion, for it has a firm belief system (the twelve step recovery program works, if followed “religiously”); and it has routine rituals of self-revelation. The word, “religion,” comes from the Latin, religare, meaning “to tie or bind together.” Religion helps people to tie back together things that have fallen apart, like their lives.
Beliefs Do Not Equate With Faith
Many people think that religion has to do with beliefs. Disputatious atheists, out to de-bunk religion, attack beliefs. It is true that differences between religions are marked by differences in beliefs. But, if one considers why religious people are religious it’s my opinion that these days profession of beliefs plays a minor role. There is a difference between profession of belief and profession of faith. Faith has to do with trust, hope, and courage to move forward. There is no necessary correlation between these virtues and belief. Indeed, many modern religious people (myself included) experience increased faith although their beliefs have become more and more uncertain. How could this be?
Faith is Experienced Primarily With the Heart, Not the Head
I have grown very fond of the Quakers, who place no stock whatsoever in creeds, but instead, enormous trust in the inner light, which dawns more upon a tender heart than an erudite mind. The Quakers are mystics, those who esteem spiritual experience more than belief. In its its primal forms religion, the attempt to tie things back together, is not a mind-game which one can easily argue people out of. Religion is passionate devotion born of a desperate struggle to survive; no, not just to survive, but eventually to soar, to get through agony, perchance to taste of ecstasy. Does this sound like AA?
What Chiefly Do People of Faith Have in Common?
The discipline of comparative religion just scratches the surface of understanding religion. When people look for common ground between religions they customarily begin by examining belief systems, to discover similar teachings. This, I feel, is a mistaken tack. Religious people do share some beliefs in common, but this only touches the surface of their spiritual kinship. Religious people have two profounder things in common:
- First, they experience (not believe, but experience) that there is a power or force by virtue of which one can hope, and move forward, wagering one’s very life, although the way past withering obstacles be impossible to see. There is help not discernable by the eye nor the head; yet to the heart it appears.
- Secondly, religious people are those who persist and patiently endure the various failures of communities of faith, so that they eventually appreciate that although their community is far from perfect, it is nevertheless to be cherished. It is a kind of family larger than kin, a replacement for ancient tribes long ago eroded by the acids of modernity. As I work in my commission as an Interfaith Peacemaker I see that pious people from diverse traditions love their communities of faith, and depend upon them for getting through life, day by day. Oh, beloved community! Christians call it koinonia. Muslims call it umah. I’m not sure what Jews call it, but I’m sure they have the same love. Pity those who have experienced only abuse or rejection by communities of faith. Alas, many do abandon religion, as they have known it, for good reason
So, My Answer Is:
Are you, devoted 12 stepper, a ‘none’? It seems to me you must answer this question yourself. By my way of thinking, AA could be considered a kind of religion. It has firm beliefs and routinized rituals; but more important, it is a community of persons committed to each other , and finding salvation day by day, and welcoming others into their circle to share a blessing. Sounds a lot like religion as I know it.
But, even if AA doesn’t “qualify” as a religion, what then? Would you think less of yourself for being a ‘none’? Why, some of my best friends are ‘nones’!