why AA is not a religion

Maria Swora (mswo_ltd@UHURA.CC.ROCHESTER.EDU)
Thu, 9 Nov 1995 09:03:56 -0500

The threads on atheistic religion have been fascinating. Just to muddle the
picture, I am going to list some reasons why Alcoholics Anonymous is _not_ a

1. The fellowship of AA fervently declares that it is _not_ a religion. In
the AA understanding, a religion has to do with infrastructure, authority,
doctrine. A religion is embodied in formalized social structure, buildings,
habits (pun intended), declaration of policy, opinions on outside issues.
AA owns very little property, especially at the local level. It has no
opinion on outside issues, including the "disease concept" of alcoholism.
It is radically democratic, even anarchic.
Practices are formal, but not formalized.

2. AA is not concerned with "big questions," such the nature of the
universe or the nature of God and so on. People may say things such as "The
church wants to save my soul, I just want to save my ass."

3. Individuals can choose their own concept of God, or no God at all. An
individual can think of the fellowship of AA itself as his or her Higher
Power (Durkheim would be delighted). People use a variety of pronouns in
speaking of God: He, She, It, and even They. They may say to others, "keep
an open mind." In the same meeting, you might hear some people talk about
going to Confession and Mass, and others talk about being Recoverying

4. In keeping with the history of Christianity, AA splits due to conflict.
But AA spreads by these splits, and remains AA.

My conclusion is that AA is spiritual, and indeed "religious," but does not
itself constitute a religion, a denomination, or even a solid philosophical

On a practical, or "functional" level, if AA were to accept the label of
"religion," it would be closing the door to membership for many, many
people who would otherwise find a place within its metaphoric "Rooms" (a
term AA members use in speaking about the fellowship and its social
embodiment - meetings).

AA is more a "drum of affliction" than a religion. I think that Paul Antze
sums it up very well in his paper "Symbolic Action in Alcoholics Anonymous"
in Mary Douglas (ed.) 1987 _Constructive Drinking_ CUP.

Maria Swora
Dept. Anthropology
University of Rochester
Rochester NY 14620