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The 12 Steps: Spiritual or Religious?

Bill Wilson, himself an alcoholic, co-founded the original twelve-step support group as a way to help his associate, Dr. Bob Smith, who was also an alcoholic, achieve sobriety. As the budding fellowship gained momentum and continued to group, Wilson wrote some of the group’s core values, tenets, and principles in what’s colloquially referred to in recovery circles as “The Big Book,” which originated the renowned Twelve Steps that countless recovery groups continue to use today. Religion and spirituality are often misconstrued, and considering the program is referred to as spiritual as opposed to religious, this has caused some discord among prospective members.

It’s reported that Bill Wilson was an agnostic, but considered alcoholism the result of men “trying to get [their] religion out of a bottle” rather than looking to the self for that sense of unity and serenity. As such, part of the goal of Wilson’s recovery fellowship and its Twelve Steps was to help addicts find that inner unity and peace while remaining abstinent from substance abuse, which led to what many have interpreted as a strong emphasis on religion in Alcoholics Anonymous. However, despite the fact that “God,” presumed to refer to the deity of Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic religions, is mentioned several times in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s widely held that twelve-step recovery is not based on explicitly religious tenets. Instead, the Twelve Steps are regarded as being spiritual rather than religious.

Before discussing how the Twelve Steps are more a spiritual ideology rather than religious, we must first understand the distinction between religion and spirituality in general.

Religion and Spirituality: What’s the Difference?

Historically, religion and spirituality tended to be used interchangeably, likely because of the prominence of official state religions and the rarity of alternative beliefs and non-belief. In the United States and various other countries today, in which there have arisen numerous points of contention related to organized religion, the debate as to what differentiates the religion and spirituality can quickly become problematic. Secular societies have relatively recently been attributing various negative characteristics to religion such as intolerance and judgment while describing the alternative—spirituality—as a champion of the positive rather than the negative and the prime alternative to being religious as it’s about inward reflection rather than rigorous doctrines and complicated systems of belief. This tenuous debate often distracts from the purpose of even distinguishing between these two states of belief, being religious or spiritual, in the first place.

However, it becomes quite simple to differentiate between the religious and the spiritual when you strip away the agendas and simply look at each concept’s basic definition. In a basic sense, religion is theistic, meaning that there’s an emphasis on the belief in one or more gods or beings of higher power, while spirituality is extra-theistic, which contrasts with religion in that spirituality entails finding meaning and purpose in everyday life, experiences that invoke feelings of awe, self-development, and perceptions of being connected to the cosmos. As such, religion typically involves a degree of spirituality both in practice and belief, but individuals can be spiritual without being religious, which is being used by many as a form of self-identification to indicate religious-like beliefs without ascribing to any one religion.

To understand this a little more simply, religion is often defined as the belief in and worship of a personal god or gods, or some other superhuman controlling power; spirituality, on the other hand, is much more loosely defined as a praxis of personal understanding and self-improvement in which individuals experience psychological growth and find meaning in subjective experiences and perceptions. While those who are religious often practice spirituality by participating in and practicing their individual religions, those who are spiritual believe that individuals and events have a greater cosmic significance and believe independent of the structured nature of religious faith. Oftentimes, those who are religious don’t worship a god, gods, or a higher power in a conscious, anthropic sense, but have a mystic like perceptive of nature, the universe, and how the individual fits like a puzzle piece in a bigger picture.

The Spirituality of the Twelve Steps

Over the course of its inception, Alcoholics Anonymous was intended to incorporate elements of spirituality while keeping a distance from any particular religious affiliations. The original intent was to keep religion and spirituality separate so as to appeal to people from all walks of life. As the co-founders were refining the core principles of twelve-step recovery, spirituality and the need for the individual to feel part of the whole was considered an important part of recovery; additionally, individuals seeking answers in the wrong places in the hope of identifying their personal significance or greater purpose was seen as a likely cause, or at least a contributor, to the alcoholism from which many were suffering at the time.

The co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as many of the earliest members, had participated in some of the recovery groups that existed at the time, which tended to be heavily focused on religious—and especially Christian—values. In developing the Twelve Steps, the co-founders merely extracted bits and pieces of what had proven to be effective to many from existing methodologies, decoupaging them into a new-and-improved version that was less about turning to Christianity or God in recovery and more about finding a proper, healthier place in which to put faith while recovery from addiction. Additionally, the co-founders and early members of Alcoholics Anonymous realized that when recovery groups focused too much on doctrine and religious, the addicts were distracted from ideas, principles, and practices that would actually aid them in their recovery. In other words, members didn’t want Alcoholics Anonymous to be another form of religious services or even a Christian recovery group; the efficacy in Alcoholics Anonymous was that it focused on recovery from the inside-out, allowing each addict to personalize his or her use of Twelve Steps in a very individual way.

During the period when the Twelve Steps were written, atheism and agnosticism were almost unheard of; therefore, Twelve Steps could make mention of “God” without identifying a god of any particular religion, allowing it to work for and apply to people of many different denominations. Essentially, this served kept the focus and emphasis in the program on recovery rather than belief because, although faith and the ability to perceive meaning and value are important to recovery, it’s up to the individual as to where to put his or her faith and what is perceived as meaningful and valuable.

Addiction is a lonely, potentially fatal disease, but no addict has to suffer alone. In fact, a better and healthier life awaits. If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, call Drug Treatment Center Finder and begin a journey toward recovery and a fulfilling life today.

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