Lamar W. Hankins : Alcoholics Anonymous, Nonbelievers, and the Constitution

Alcoholics Anonymous “praying hands” medallion. Image from Alternatives in Treatment.

Alcoholics Anonymous, nonbelievers, 
and the Constitution

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.’

By Lamar W. Hankins | The Rag Blog | August 1, 2013

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 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 12 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 10 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 nonbelievers 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 nonbelievers 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, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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7 Responses to Lamar W. Hankins : Alcoholics Anonymous, Nonbelievers, and the Constitution

  1. Anonymous says:

    Besides their religious orientation, my problem with AA is their absolutism. Everyone MUST admit to being an incorrigible alcoholic who must never drink alcohol. Whereas that may be the case with some, that is not the case with all who are obliged to show up on their door.
    David Hamilton

  2. Steve Russell says:

    I agree with your legal analysis completely, Lamar, and that’s why I was always open to any alternative proposed either by counsel or by the defendant.

    Also, before I would condition a personal bond on AA attendance, I would ask the defendant’s opinion of AA.

    Leaving AA aside, it was generally not my practice to send anybody somewhere I had not gone, including to jail.

    Having dealt with a criminal docket dominated by alcohol for 17 years, I’ve got to say that AA had the best track record at the lowest cost to the defendant or the public of any of the options.

    I personally can’t keep a straight face at an AA meeting.

    I have been desperate enough to attend Overeaters Anonymous meetings in the hope that it might save my life, the the only help it offers is that giggling burns calories. That’s just me, though.

    To David: the studies put the probability that a SECOND offender is an alcoholic at 80%. That’s enough to me to require proof that somethings being done to rule out or to treat alcoholism on a second alsohol-related offense.

    A first offense DWI is more often than not a simple refusal to accept that if you’ve had enough to drink to tell you’ve been drinking, you ought not to drive. Nobody believes that at first. They think you have to be “drunk,” which is dangerous nonsense.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Glad the article references historic background of the AA fellowship. Yes, it’s a spinoff of a now-defunct non-denominational Christian organization, the Oxford Groups. But AA split with them early on, because of OG’s religious affiliations, as well as other differences.

    Besides the prominence of atheists and agnostics in the original NY AA group, there was concern that Catholics in the Akron and Cleveland, OH area AA groups would be turned off, and/or prohibited from attendance at Oxford Group meetings, b/c this was seen as a Protestant-identified group. Hence, the “Higher Power” and “God as we understood Him” language in the Steps.

    Some of us dyed-in-the-wool former atheists in AA have had profound spiritual experiences that made believers out of us. Others simply came to the meetings and then worked the 12 steps with a sponsor while ignoring, overlooking, or re-interpreting God references they heard and read. You can do that and be considered a member in good standing.

    I am writing this to say that hopefully no one who desires recovery need necessarily find the spirituality of AA a barrier. There are even atheist/agnostic groups within AA.

    o/t/o/h, belief can be found w/o a dogmatic adherence to any particular concept of God (i.e., many if not most of our members are ‘spiritual but not religious’).

    As to the issue of whether AA is a “religion” as defined by the establishment clause of the Constitution or not, I am agnostic (an ironic, but not really joking reference here).

    Attendance is voluntary, and no actual belief in a Supreme Being is required. You don’t even have to work the Steps to be considered a “member.” (see AA third tradition)

    AA has its own version of the “establishment” clause of the Constitution in our Traditions which state we don’t affiliate with any organizations, sects, denominations, take no stands on outside issues, etc.

    However, Courts ordering people to come to our meetings undermines our voluntary attendance and membership principles. We are not affiliated with any other institution or organization by design. That the legal mandate originates from outside of AA with the courts may give us a pass on violating our own traditions, but i/m/o it violates the spirit if not the letter of our traditions.

    it’s tricky, b/c many people who need recovery come through our doors and some stay. it’s constructive even if it doesn’t fit with our own self-concept.

    I would encourage anyone whose conscience will not let them stay to seek out secular alternatives. otherwise, no one knows (or cares) whether you are attending our meetings or not, b/c we are anonymous. you can get your card initialed by anyone and not be caught or reported by any of us. not that I am encouraging you to do that, simply that people do and really it is up to you whether or not you want to evade your court mandate.

  4. Anonymous says:

    From the preamble that is read at the beginning every AA meeting in the world:
    “A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.”
    Mr Hankins should do a lot more research before he makes this sort of pronouncement. There may be religious people at an AA meeting, even as they can be found at any other gathering ( ever been to a civil rights meeting?), and some may even be overzealous in their particular enthusiasm, but they speak only for themselves, not others. For that matter, there are AA meetings for atheists.
    A little critical thinking, please.
    Day at a time

  5. Absolutely agree with David. It’s the one-size-fits-all approach that flies in the face of fact. No doubt there are people who wouldn’t be alive without AA, and “god” bless the program for that. But I also believe there are folks whose addiction to AA itself is worse than the alternative.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “there are folks whose addiction to AA itself is worse than the alternative”

    Worse than drinking yourself to death? If you’ve lived long enough, you might have seen that. it is ugly indeed.

    I suspect your intolerance for complete abstinence from a substance (by other people!) would be different if it was heroin or cigarettes being considered, rather than booze.

    You feel uncomfortable, b/c you like to drink & don’t understand those who can’t/don’t drink b/c it is killing them.

    If people feel they need AA, then where is the harm, except to your own intolerance? AA has no opinion on drinking as an institution, nor do we criticize the majority of people who still can enjoy it.

    As for religious ‘dogma,’ are you as hard on say, Unitarians? Or philosophy majors? AA in general is about as dogmatic as that.

  7. Anon: I clearly acknowledged in my comment that there are people “who wouldn’t be alive without AA” — and certainly, for those people, AA is a vital and constructive force. Often, indeed, a life-saver.

    But with others, whose substance issues don’t fit the simplistic AA model — those diagnosed as mental-health based self-medicators, for instance — the real causes might not even get addressed by the AA approach. For some, the cultish, defeatist AA lifestyle — and the negative self-image of being a life-long incurable “alcoholic” or “addict” — might actually harm more than help.

    Scientific studies have shown that AA can be very beneficial for some but not be appropriate treatment for others.

    Back to Lamar’s article: TDCJ often makes AA attendance mandatory for offenders whose crimes weren’t even alcohol- or drug-related — or for whom substance dependence is only assumed to be an issue. Where life-skills or job training programs might be more appropriate.

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