The Religion of AA and Twelve Steps

Despite protestations to the contrary, the Twelve Steps theory and AA model of addiction treatment is religious in nature. It has roots in the deterministic theology of John Calvin, or what Norman Geisler would say is an extreme version of Calvinism. Most addiction specialists who write about the religion of AA do not understand the differing views in Protestant theology relative to free will and determinism. This controversy, however, mirrors the current controversy as to whether addiction is a disease or choice. Religious people also tend to be unaware of this issue. This means that religious people who believe in free will and choice as a matter of faith often become deterministic in their views of addiction because of the religious determinism of the Twelve Steps theory of addiction treatment.

People who are not religious are rightly offended at the Twelve Steps and AA model of treatment, and one cannot even summarize this treatment model without seeing the obvious religious overtones. Consider, for example, the way Miller (1998) summarizes the Twelve Steps treatment approach. Twelve Steps treatment involves: 1) turning one’s will over to the Higher Power of your choice; 2) confessing the wrong things you have done; 3) making amends to others; 4) prayer and meditation; and 5) conforming oneself to the will of the Higher Power (984). Notice that this entire description is religious. In addition, the Twelve Steps model is a particular kind of religion that has a vaguely defined deity, a deterministic view of human nature, and a preference for the Big Book over the Bible.

For many, the most visible connection of religion to AA is the Oxford Group, which serves as the religious framework for the Twelve Steps theory. The real issue, however, is not religion or the peculiar beliefs of the Oxford Group, but a philosophy of determinism that is behind the religious connection. It is the bringing over of this aspect of religious thought that is detrimental to addiction treatment and not religion. For example, Kurtz (1979) analyzes the Five Procedures of the Oxford Group and suggests that the first (give in to God) is changed to “hopeless helplessness rather than salvation” (50). Kurtz suggests this is an attempt to avoid any religious association. Hopeless helplessness, however, is precisely the view of individual salvation in extreme Calvinism, so there actually has been no substitution but rather a shuffling of terminology with a misapplication to addiction treatment.

Sometimes concepts are attached to the language of the Bible without the Bible actually teaching the concept. Such is the case with what often happens in the Twelve Steps and AA treatment model. For example, Paul said, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). The NIV translates the Greek adjective asthenes as “powerless” while the New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates it “helpless.” Both of these terms are often found in the literature of the Twelve Steps and AA model of addiction treatment and Romans 5:6 is often referenced by those who seek a biblical justification for this treatment approach. Although this terminology fits nicely with the argument that the addict is powerless and helpless in his addiction, it is actually a misapplication of the passage. Paul’s subject in this text is salvation and not addiction, human behavior, or the ability to make choices. His argument is that humankind is powerless to provide a means of salvation, which is the point he makes two verses later in this chapter, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).

Some might argue that terms like powerless and helplessness in this text can refer to a corrupt human nature and that humankind does not have the freedom to make good choices regarding behavior. A better interpretation of the text, however, is to understand that Paul is talking about humankind’s helpless condition without Christ rather than the inability to choose to follow Christ. The idea is that we cannot save ourselves, or provide a meaningful sacrifice that would atone for our sins, but we can respond favorably to the good news of salvation, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Although we cannot provide the means for this salvation, we can make the individual choice whether to accept it. Notice that the promise is for “whoever believes.” This is in harmony with the open invitation of the gospel, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’…and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).

Whether the subject is salvation, behavior, or addiction, the expectations of God for humankind is that freedom, free will, and choice are unique characteristics of the human race. The expectation is that people will freely come to God for salvation and guidance. Peter describes the longing of God for humankind to make the right choice in saying that God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). This verse demonstrates that every individual has the potential to make the right choice because God is described as “not wanting anyone to perish.”

Knowing that God wants all to be saved does not relieve individuals of the responsibility of making the hard choices of discipleship, including counting the cost (Luke 14:28) and self-denial (Mark 8:34). Paul describes the Christian life as a race to the finish, and he encourages Christians to run “in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24) or “do not run like a man running aimlessly” (v. 26). He concludes by using himself as an example, “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (v. 27). The analogy of the athlete indicates the need for individual discipline and choice relative to acceptable Christian behavior. These verses summarize biblical teaching relative to the struggle to control human behavior. When faced with compulsions to do things that have negative consequences, the easy way out is to say, “Please help me because I can’t help myself!” Instead, the power is in each one to make the body a slave rather than being a slave of our compulsions.

There has been a marriage between the secular disease model view of addiction and the religious treatment model of Twelve Steps and AA. Both the disease model of addiction and the Twelve Steps and AA approach to treatment assume a view of human nature that suggests individuals cannot practice self-control because of some genetic or spiritual flaw. Regardless of what kind of religious belief one has, or whether one is secular or religious, everyone is better off adopting a treatment strategy based on a belief in free will and behavioral choice. 

Jeffery Schaler (1996) notes the religious nature of AA by quoting directly from the Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (1976) Big Book, which is an official AA publication. The Big Book says, “He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves” (25). This parallels the view of theological determinism that the sinner is unable to make any changes without a personal intervention by God. Rather than making an individual behavioral choice, the addict is urged to let the Big Book enable you “to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem” (52).

So then, what should be done relative to the use of religion in addiction treatment? A pragmatic approach should be taken. If faith can make a positive contribution to treatment, then by all means it should be used, but a religious treatment model should never be forced on people who do not want it. Not only should friends and family avoid coercing people in religious treatment programs, but the government and courts have no business doing so either. 

The purpose here is not to criticize Twelve Steps and AA for being religious, but for denying that it is religious, and also for not revealing that it is a certain kind of religion; that is, a religion that believes in a deterministic view of human behavior. Transparency is essential so that all people can find the best treatment program that fits their needs. 

J B Myers


Faith and Addiction

Elders and Deacons

Life Choices 

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