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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Religion and Spirituality

Very often, and rightly so, we hear that A.A. is a spiritual, not religious, program. Yet at the same time we read in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous: "Be quick to see where religious people are right." And in the "Spiritual Experience" appendix, the term "religious experiences" is used synonymously with the terms "spiritual awakening" and "spiritual experience." What the heck is going on here?

Much confusion arises, I find, because many or us are (or were) unaware that the word "religion" has two different senses to it, as William James made clear in "The Varieities of Religious Experience." There are 'outer' religious forms - churches, temples, mosques, doctrines and dogmas, etc. - and there are 'inner' religious experiences which have little or nothing to do with 'outer' religious forms.

The word "religion" comes from the Latin words re (again) and ligare (to tie, or unite, as in 'ligature' or 'ligament'). Thus, the 'inner' religious experience is that of reuniting with the Whole, with a Power greater than one's 'self,' or simply with God. In this sense, and this sense only, A.A. could be said to be a spiritual and religious program, although our AA. Preamble (approved by the General Service Conference) makes it clear that A.A. "is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics or organization, and neither endorse nor opposes any causes."

Over the years there has been much controversy over whether A.A. is, in essence, a Christian program, although our Preamble should make it clear that we are not. Thus, while the Oxford Group from which A.A. emerged was a Christian organization, the Foreword to the Second Edition of the 'Big book' clearly states that "(b)y personal religious affiliation, we include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Moslems and Buddhists." Now that A.A. has spread worldwide, it is likely that we include members from nearly every religious tradition from A to Z - or from Anglican and Advaitist to Zoroastrian and Zen Buddhist, if you'd rather.

A.A. co-founder Bill W. addressed the issue of religious tolerance - even tolerance for the avowed atheist - in his published correspondence. Writing in 1940, Bill observed:
"We found that the principles of tolerance and love had to be emphasized in actual practice. We can never say (or insinuate) to anyone that he must agree to our formula or be excommunicated. The atheist may stand up in an A.A. meeting still denying the Deity, yet reporting how vastly he has been changed in attitude and outlook. Much experience tells he will presently change his mind about God, but nobody tells him he must do so."

"In order to carry the principle of inclusiveness and tolerance still further, we make no religious requirement of anyone. All people having an alcoholic problem who wish to get rid of it and so make a happy adjustment with the circumstances of their lives, become A.A. members by simply associating with us. Nothing but sincerity is needed. But we do not demand even this."

"In such an atmosphere the orthodox, the unorthodox, and the unbeliever mix happily and usefully together. An opportunity for spiritual growth is open to all."
["As Bill Sees It," p. 158]
Thus, the aim of A.A. is to grow in spirituality; and while we do not endorse or oppose any 'outer' religious sects, denominations or practices, we should "(b)e quick to see where religious people are right."

Reuniting with our Source - whatever that may be called - has, after all, been the crux of 'inner' religious experience since the dawn of time.


  1. It may be worthy of note: a closer look at the quote "be quick to see WHERE religious people are right"
    It does clearly say "where" not "that". Implying - to me - that there may be statements made by religious people that are simply "wrong" also.
    Bill W had a very good command of the english language - I think he chose the word "where" quite. appropriately.

  2. Absolutely . . . A wise man instructed me to "study all religions yntil I could see the 'sameness' in them all." In doing that, I found my essence.