Don't confuse AA with being a 'religion'

Monday, August 6, 2001


The two most important things America gave the 20th century, author Kurt Vonnegut is reported to have said, are the blues and Alcoholics Anonymous.

He's at least half right. Today AA, founded in 1935 by a New York stockbroker and an Ohio proctologist both written off as hopeless drunks, claims more than 2 million members. Unless you are involved with AA, or know someone who is, you probably will be surprised to learn that AA holds more than 300 meetings a week on O'ahu.

Even more surprising, perhaps, AA doesn't want your money or even, unless you know someone in need of its services, your attention. Its members want nothing so much as to be able to extend to others what was so freely offered to them — the gift of sobriety.

A disturbing threat to this organization and its friends has appeared, of all places, in federal courts on the East Coast. In one ruling, a prison inmate prevailed in his argument that he shouldn't be forced to attend AA meetings in his facility because "AA is a religion." Of course, we can't constitutionally force religion upon anyone in this country.

Ironically, AA doesn't force anyone to attend meetings.

In another ruling, testimony against a manslaughter defendant was thrown out because his disclosures of wrongs to fellow members should be protected by "a privilege granted to other religions similarly situated."

AA doesn't claim any such privilege.

The appeals court based its conclusion on "the religious nature of the 12 steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous.

As anyone familiar with AA can tell you, and a careful reading of its literature makes clear, AA is not religious. Neither, by the way, are the more than 200 other organizations that have adapted, with the permission of AA, the 12 steps: Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous and the like.

"The only requirement for membership," says AA's 3rd Tradition, "is a desire to stop drinking." A wide assortment of atheists, agnostics and others have become successful in AA.

Confusion arises, if that's what it is, because AA members are urged to develop a relationship with a "higher power." The literature makes clear, however, that "AA is not allied with any sect (or) denomination" and that a member's AA group can serve as a suitable higher power.

How is the finding that AA is a religion a threat? The most immediate problem is for judges, probation officers, treatment counselors and the like, who commonly require troubled people in their care to attend AA meetings. Why? Because they know that even if they don't try to follow the AA program, the meetings still are likely to stabilize them to some extent and to plant the seeds for the potential of a better life.

At some local AA meetings, literally dozens of the attendees are there not from choice, but because some outside agency ordered them there. A legal finding that AA is a "religion" means those agencies would have nowhere to send their clients.

Not all of these clients get the message and improve their lives. But some do. A Hawai'i court finding that AA is a "religion" thus would be a tragic mistake.

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