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July 31st, 2013
Freethought San Marcos: Alcoholics Anonymous, Non-believers, and the Constitution

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Every day, courts throughout the country require people placed on probation for alcohol-related offenses to attend 12-step treatment programs.  Often, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is specifically named as the program they must attend, and a probationer may be required to attend one AA meeting each day for 30 days or more.  This circumstance raises two important questions:  1) is AA a religion-based program? 2) If so, does it violate the First Amendment rights of probationers to require attendance at AA meetings?

Since 1996, at least twelve federal district and appellate courts have found that AA is religion based.  Thus, mandatory attendance at AA meetings as a condition of probation (or parole) violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  Of course, if there is a secular program that serves the same purpose as AA, attendance at that program can be made mandatory because no Establishment Clause problem affects secular programs.  But no other alcohol recovery program of which I am aware provides as many meetings as does AA.  With over 100,000 meetings worldwide and nearly 2 million members, all other programs are dwarfed by AA.

I do not oppose AA.  Many of my friends, relatives, acquaintances, and clients benefit from AA.  But I have also known people who find AA meetings that emphasize religion or religious practices unacceptable, preventing them from benefiting from the program.

Not all AA meetings are the same, though it is probably fair to say that most AA groups include religion in their meetings.  Some people who reject religion are able occasionally to find a group that has a more secular approach that is not offensive to their core beliefs.  But every one of the 12 federal courts and one state court that I have found that has ruled for the record on this issue has held that AA is religious-based and that offenders cannot be constitutionally compelled to attend AA meetings.

There is irony in this situation.  AA is widely acknowledged as founded by Bill Wilson (Bill W. in AA parlance) and Bob Smith, but others joined them in creating what is arguably the most successful self-help program to help alcoholics overcome (or at least manage) their problems with alcohol.  Bill W. wrote the first version of the 12 Steps that at least ten people began using in 1938 to get and stay sober.  But two members of the group, Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst, objected to the emphasis on faith, religion, and religious practice they encountered when they began to attend meetings.

Wilson reported in “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” that Burwell said in their first encounter, “I can’t stand this God stuff! It’s a lot of malarkey for weak folks. The group doesn’t need it and I won’t have it. To hell with it.”  Burwell could not accept the idea of Christian redemption that most of the group was preaching.  When Burwell started to drink again a few months later, the members of the group turned against him and refused to help him again.  After Burwell regained his sobriety and would not stop attending the meetings, the group once again accepted him in spite of his anti-religion attitude.

Wilson initially refused to change any of the ideas he had enunciated in “The 12 Steps,” which he wrote on a scratch pad in pencil in May 1938.  But Burwell and Parkhurst would not go along with the use of the word God in the original draft.  They represented 20% of the original group and Wilson did not want to lose them, so he relented.  As Susan Cheever, a columnist for “The Fix” recently explained:

Finally a compromise was reached, and four key changes in the document were agreed to.  In Step Two, “a Power    greater than ourselves” replaced “God.” In Steps Three and Eleven, the single word “God” was qualified by the addition of “as we understood Him.” “On our knees” was cut from Step Seven. And the sentence “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery” was added to introduce all the Steps;  they were being offered as “suggestions” rather than imposed as “rules.”

 It was Jimmy Burwell’s uncompromising stance against religion that initially forced Alcoholics Anonymous into the tolerant, open and welcoming group that has helped more than two million believers, agnostics and atheists. It was Burwell and Parkhurst who  bridled at Bill’s original “God”-centered Step Three and pestered the group into the all-  inclusive revision, “God as we understood Him.” And it was Burwell whose “bad  behavior” was the foundation of the Third Tradition in which the only requirement listed for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.

After at least 100 men were participating in AA, Wilson began dictating what became known as “The Big Book,” which was edited and revised by all who were then participating in the program.  Burwell later became the unofficial archivist for AA, though his secular views never changed.  Burwell retained his sobriety until his death at age 76 in 1974.

In 1941, Jack Alexander wrote an article about AA for the “Saturday Evening Post,” which established the program as what Cheever calls “a serious and effective option for alcoholic treatment.”   Cheever summed up Wilson’s attitude toward Burwell and Parkhurst:

In “Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age,” Bill Wilson paid tribute to Burwell, Parkhurst and the changes they forced in AA’s principles: “This was the great  contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

Any AA group that is intolerant of atheists, agnostics, and religious non-believers fails to appreciate the history of AA and has too narrow a view of what makes AA successful.  From my observations over the years, I have concluded that it is the assistance that members provide to one another that makes AA work.  Each member helps others stay sober and, in turn, is helped.  The best AA programs provide a form of cognitive behavior therapy in which participants look at
themselves honestly and openly, identifying the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that cause them problems.  With the help of one another, members find ways to avoid their dysfunctional feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

Psychologists and psychotherapists might suggest journaling, role-playing, relaxation techniques, and mental distractions as coping strategies.  In the best AA programs, members practice these or similar strategies, including having someone available day or night to provide support.

The “Serenity Prayer” that is a part of AA (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”)recognizes what writer and psychology educator Kendra Cherry says is the purpose of cognitive therapy:  “The goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to teach patients that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with things in their environment.”

AA would appeal more to atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers if AA would make a conscious effort to be more inclusive.  When that doesn’t happen, secular alternatives in some communities can serve the non-religious population, but their meetings are not as available to most people as are AA’s meetings.

Among secular alternatives to AA are Life Ring, which has one meeting in Texas, in Austin;  Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) has meetings in about 30 towns and cities in Texas, including Austin and Lockhart in Central Texas; Smart Recovery has no meetings in Texas; Women for Sobriety has an office in Pennsylvania, but no meeting information on its website; Rational Recovery has one meeting location in California and one in Iowa.  In contrast, even in most small towns, one can find several AA meetings to attend every week.

Many AA proponents argue that the “higher power” found in its steps can be whatever one wants it to be.  Yet plainly religious practices go on at AA meetings, such as prayer, scripture-quoting,and the crediting of a supernatural “higher power” for what is obviously a result of intensive support by the AA community.

I’m glad AA exists for those who need, want, and benefit from it.  But we need other alternatives for those whose beliefs don’t harmonize with AA practices.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.

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7 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Alcoholics Anonymous, Non-believers, and the Constitution

  1. “The best AA programs provide a form of cognitive behavior therapy in which participants look at themselves honestly and openly, identifying the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that cause them problems. With the help of one another, members find ways to avoid their dysfunctional feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.”

    That’s funny, I never saw anything approaching that in 20 years of on and off attendance, in hundreds of different meetings in five states. I was told it was my choice, find God or die drunk in the gutter, to take the cotton out of my ears and shove it in my mouth.

    One of biggest lies in recovery is that people NEED a group to get sober. People get sober every day without groups or programs.

    The NIAAA’s 2001–2002 National Epidemiolo­gic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions interviewe­d over 43,000 people. Using the criteria for alcohol dependence found in the DSM-IV, they found:
    “About 75 percent of persons who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of help, including specialty alcohol (rehab) programs and AA. Only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment.­”

  2. I attend AA meetings and have been to rehab with professionals and would choose a group meeting every time if given the choice. A few religious tenets do intertwine with my idea of sobriety but for the most part they offer liitle explanatory power towards shifting my focus on a more productive outcome. I believe constant prayer is simply a weaker version of a cognitive behavioral therapists positive reinforcing coping statements and both are gentle reminders to stay the course . Prayer likely does nothing supernatural but it heals the person praying.

    Do I wish there was better secular therapy in AA?. Sure. But where I disagree with this article is the comfort I feel as a nonbeliever in the rooms. I know of many atheist/agnostics that feel the same. The serenity is my favorite prayer because it reminds me to take courage and a stand, something I rarely did in the past. None of the religiosity bothers me, perhaps because I’ve never seen or felt a pushback from anyone after speaking about my nonbelief.

    Even though AA is far from perfect it still very much allows for atheists and offers magnitudes more healing avenues than the church I grew up in where I felt constant confusion about what steps to take to solve a problem in my life.

    There is also a program in Houston called the SMART program that is purely secular cognitive behavioral therapy based which I really like as well but have only gone a few times because of lack of availability.

  3. Was typing on my phone so forgot something important…. My first sentence meant to say- I would choose a group meeting with professionals from rehab evert time over an AA meeting.

  4. AA is being sued by the parents of Karla Brada who was murdered by a violent man she met in AA meetings. He had been sentenced to AA off and on for many years and had a long rap sheet. She was brought to AA meetings in a van from a rehab.

    AA is not only an unconstitutional mandate by the courts, but a very dangerous one indeed. No place for women or children!

    Please your comparison to therapy is ridiculous. AA knows nothing about how to help the mentally ill or people with emotional problems.

  5. Decades of forcing alcohol-related offenders into AA meetings just because they have abused alcohol has loaded the spiritual fellowship with non-alcoholics, rendering a once highly effective spiritual fellowship into its current state: A vastly secular, treatment center contaminated, pop-recovery society of non-alcoholics; mixed folks with varying ‘troubles’ who have no idea why an alcoholic even ought to take the Twelve Steps in order to recover much less qualified access or guidance and motivation to investigate much how.

    Today the Twelve Steps remains the granddaddy of all recovery plans. Despite many attempts to capture and market its essence; it has never been successfully commercialized without spoiling its effectiveness—a fact which makes it the competitive envy of the alcohol and addictions treatment industry to this day. Trying to do what only God can has proven to be quite impossible.

    Bureaucrats trying to access what was once an efficacious fellowship (with hardly a failure,) simply because within their secular ranks there is nothing comparable that is truly helpful to the real alcoholic or drug addict (they don’t know what else to do,) has been ruinous to AA as a whole. Meanwhile AA’s increasingly complacent members, asleep at the wheel, selfishly allow it to happen. Too bad. AA has now been transformed into a murky client-pool from which the “Addictions Industry” now draws, cultivates and imprisons its growing base of new and repeat customers.

    Ahhh the scent of money. It stinks. Bad. SNIFF! “Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that.”

    ~ dannyjschwarzhoff

  6. Mr. Hankins is very misinformed on the religious nature of the 12-Step groups. He states “it is probably fair to say that most AA groups include religion in their meetings.”

    It would be impossible for an AA meeting to “not include religion in their meetings.” That would mean a meeting in which there is no mention of the 12 Steps and no “Big Book.” It would also mean no 5th-Step sharing (sharing for confession) and no 12th-Step sharing (sharing for witness).

    What would people in a genuinely non-religious (as opposed to merely non-Christian) meeting do?

    The changes in the original Steps in reference to God were about “leaving the door wide open” in order to get people staying around long enough to convert. It was not about somehow reducing God in AA. It was atheists who eventually converted who came up with the suggestions to make AA appear “not religious,” to not drive off the atheists/agnostics before they could be converted.

    The basic AA “program” was written before any of the Steps were written in the form a a do-it-yourself conversion manual titled “Soul Surgery.” Certainly Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson were very familiar with the book as were probably most if not all of the early AA members.

    “Soul Surgery” suggested things like changing words from ordinary religious terms to ones that would not set off alarm bells in a non-believer or a believer in a different religion or denomination. Examples:

    “religious” to “spiritual, not religious”
    “confession” to “admission”
    “God” to “Higher Power”
    “sharing for witness” to “Twelfth Step sharing”
    discarding “Jesus” altogether

    “Soul Surgery” includes all the strategies important to any cult to win new converts including strategies on how to wrest confessions out of people and increase feelings of guilt enough to lead to conversion.

    The expressions “Higher Power” and “God as we understood Him,” as one works the Steps, becomes totally nonsensical if one doesn’t “come to believe” and end up with God as Bill W and Dr. Bob are not the “we” that understood Him.

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