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SOBER ALCOHOLIC, 1964
CHARACTERISTICS OF A.A.
by Irving Peter Gellman
discussing their initial contact with A.A. some members
indicate that they were apprehensive about the nature and
of the religious requirements for affiliation. The following
comments typify this concern: "I expected a lot of
and hymn singing;" "I thought you were some kind
of fanatics;" or
"I had the idea that you were a bunch of Holy Rollers."
statements usually elicit laughter, implying that misconceptions
of the religious aspects of the fellowship is fairly common.
and vigorously, A.A. denies that it is a
religious movement. It steadfastly maintains that it is
spiritual and not a religious program. The precise distinction
seldom articulated, although considerable discussion concerning
this point occurs at meetings and elsewhere. Despite the
of a formal theological identity there is little doubt that
does manifest many characteristics of a valid religious
Its historical origin and contemporary organization lend
to such an identity.
Anonymous was incubated in the original Oxford
Group Movement, now known as Moral Rearmament founded by
Buchman, a Lutheran minister, in 1908. Buchman was visiting
England at that time, when he had a "vision" which
caused him to alter his personality by removing such basic
as selfishness, dishonesty, and resentments. He decided
to the United States to spread the word of his "revelation."
Meeting with only limited success, in 1920 he returned to
where he devoted his energies to converting the undergraduates
Cambridge University. In 1921 he extended his' efforts to
University where he concentrated on cultivating the sons
upper-class families. It was during this period that the
took the name Oxford Group, stirring up quite a controversy
doing. Considerable antagonism was aroused by the implied
association with Oxford University and by the confusion
earlier Oxford Movement of Cardinal Neuman.
came slowly to Buchman, but it did come at last. In
1924 he returned to the United States and focused his attention
students of such upper-class institutions as Yale and Harvard.
Returning to England he was able to convert a number of
persons. Once again Buchman sailed for the United States,
time with an entourage of sixty converts to bolster his
There was nothing second-rate about the organization which
being established with headquarters in no less a place than
Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Buchman's influence
rapidly and he was able to procure the personal endorsement
several respected clergymen.
1938 Buchman's position was so well entrenched that the
doctrine of Moral Rearmament was introduced for the purpose
resolving all domestic and international conflicts. Its
were increasing in an accelerated fashion, partly due to
promotional campaigns in the United States and throughout
owes much of its basic doctrine to the Oxford Group
principles which set forth the following fundamentals:
Men are sinners.
2. Men can be changed.
3. Confession is a prerequisit to change.
4. The changed soul has direct access to God.
5. The age of miracles has returned.
6. Those who have changed must change others.
member of the Oxford Group must fulfill the Four Absolutes
prescribed by Buchman. These are Absolute Purity, Absolute
Honesty, Absolute Love, and Absolute Unselfishness. One
his life over to God, and God will then instruct the person
concerning his future behavior. This becomes a personal,
individual experience in which each disciple is changed
subject to the will of God.
order to reach the Four Absolutes the individual passes
through five steps. First, one surrenders to God. Second,
listens to God's instructions which vary according to the
each individual. The third step consists of "checking
The member discusses the instructions he has received from
with an older, more experienced Grouper who is able to confirm
reliability of the message. This is necessary because occasionally
the new member may misinterpret God's instructions and the
member is able to correct such errors. The fourth step involves
implementing God's will by making amends to other people
harm done to them in previous times. The last step is the
achievement of the ideals of the Group and sharing them
people. This may require a kind of reciprocal confession
new member and a Grouper. The older member reports his own
shortcomings and failings at which point the new person
in a similar recitation. When the newcomer participates
confessional it is felt that he has been converted. The
this procedure has been incorporated into the Twelve Steps
availed himself of modern public relations techniques
with full implementation of social-psychological methods
propagandization. This included the use of popular slogans
BLINDS AND SIN BINDS
JESUS CHRIST STILL SUITS, SAVES, SATISFIES
SUPERNATURAL NETWORK OVER LIVE WIRES
utilization of somewhat similar slogans has become an
integral part of the A.A. system.
is extensive reference to the concept of God in
Alcoholics Anonymous. However, emphasis is placed upon individual
definition and acceptance of the meaning of God. The Third
most often cited in this connection. It reads, "Made
a decision to
turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as
understood Him." In the Second Step reference is made
"...Power greater than ourselves..." The Fifth
and Sixth Steps
also make reference to God, and the Seventh Step states,
asked Him to remove our shortcomings."
is obvious that, for the most part, members identify with
the traditional Christian concept of God. However, it is
that any symbolic representation of a Higher Power may be
substituted if an individual so desires. The group itself
frequently proposed as a form of Higher Power, which may
help in achieving and maintaining sobriety.
his volume Religion in Contemporary Culture, Benson
devotes an entire chapter to the subject of the power factors
religion. He offers an analysis of the functions of the
Power in Alcoholics Anonymous and notes:
effectiveness of the higher power does not necessitate a
particular form which the system of power takes. Members
turn to God as they understand Him. For some members the
power is thought of merely as A.A., the power of the group
illustrates the type of higher power Durkeim found in religion.
Others think of the higher power in terms of the power of
ideals, a concept similar to that of Dewey. Still others
service to their fellow man the power which makes possible
recovery from alcoholism. Many members merely accept orthodox
ideas which have come to them from religious denominations
fully defining what these mean.
is reiterated in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions with
the following advice to the alcoholic: "You can, if
you wish, make
A.A. itself your Higher Power. Here's a very large group
who have solved their alcohol problem. In this respect they
certainly a power greater than you who have not even come
the solution. Surely you can have faith in them."
M. Tiebout, a prominent psychiatrist, has this to say
about the nature of religion in A.A.:
central effect, therefore of Alcoholics Anonymous is
to develop in the person a spiritual state which will serve
direct neutralizing force upon the egocentric elements in
character of the alcoholic.... It is my belief that the
value of the A.A. approach arises from its use of religious
spiritual force to attack the fundamental narcissism of
alcoholic. In other words this group relies upon an emotional
force, religion, to achieve an emotional result..."
many members of A.A. believe that a religious
or spiritual force has been the principal factor in their
from active alcoholism. The achievement of sobriety is often
referred to as a "miracle."
a volume dealing with religion and Alcoholics Anonymous,
Protestant minister, G. Aiken Taylor, says:
of course, is neither religion nor an adequate
substitute for true religion. It doesn't try to be....Those
know him best see it only as a living "parable"
within which both
liabilities and assets are religiously meaningful. A.A.
possibly the high-water mark of a practicing "psychology
of course, speaks from the theological point of view
and bases his evaluation of the religious aspects of A.A.
approximation to orthodox Christianity. The major part of
analysis deals with Alcoholics Anonymous from this orientation
demonstrates many similarities between the principles of
Christian theology. He also points out some areas of discrepancy
between A.A. and conventional Christianity.
all practical purposes, official A.A. limits its concern
to this life; Christianity notes that men die. A.A. frankly
that people are imperfect; Christianity claims to know why,
relates man's imperfection to an absolute Norm and Authority.
declares that men and women need the help of a power greater
themselves; Christianity believes that the very nature of
women makes it necessary to talk about some preliminary
matters - such as forgiveness - before you can talk about
help. A.A. talks
about a Supreme Being; Christianity says, Yes there is a
Being, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ..."
needs to realize that the Scriptures, the Sacraments
and the Sabbath are not trivial; the Church, on the other
could use proof that God accompanies man to his place of
six days a week. A.A. should remember that besides the present
there is eternity; the Church should remember that besides
eternity there is the present."
the vital issue in the present analysis is not the
degree to which A.A. does or does not resemble Christianity.
object, rather, is to describe those characteristics of
Anonymous which justifiably establish it as a religious
Benson Comments, "Religion is so complex and variable
problem of establishing a classification of types of religious
organization has been a keen challenge... and has proved
the purpose of this presentation we need not enter into
detailed discussion of the sociology of religion. We concur
Nottingham who says:
the point of view of the sociologist...religion may be
regarded as a cultural tool by means of which man has been
accommodate himself to his experiences in his total environment;
the latter includes himself, his fellow group members, the
of nature and that which is felt by him to transcend them
is this last, the direction of human thought, feeling and
to things which man feels to be beyond his ordinary everyday
experience with himself, his fellows, and the natural world,
is, the sacred - that constitutes, we believe, the very
first phase of a religious movement is frequently
dominated by its principal architect, the charismatic leader.
successful founder must have a compelling personality and
power to attract and hold followers. The history of A.A.
that Bill W., and to a lesser extent Doctor Bob, have filled
as Benson points out:
social or religious movement cannot long survive on
enthusiasm alone. It must be organized to defend itself
opposition, to perpetuate itself as a stable institution.
develop a clear-cut ideology which serves as the basis of
understanding of the aims, ideas and assumptions of the
It must also develop a step-by-step program for bringing
part of the system of social control in the movement,
procedures are developed for educating or indoctrinating
or prospective members."
need only review the entire development of Alcoholics
Anonymous to be impressed with the manner in which it has
the design outlined above. Even more dramatic is the A.A.
commitment to another prerequisite of a religious movement.
religious movements have as one of their cardinal aims
the bringing of a new way of life to those who are not yet
Twelfth Step is an indication of the extent to which A.A.
is dedicated to converting active alcoholics to a new way
It is concerned with "carrying the message" to
and is considered to be one of the most important activities
the fellowship. A.A. maintains that it is a program of attraction,
not promotion. This signifies that, theoretically, the movement
does not recruit followers but that active alcoholics are
to seek out the fellowship. Nevertheless, once the problem
has requested assistance every effort is extended to "convert"
this inebriate to the A.A. way of life. It is also obvious
A.A. is the beneficiary of considerable favorable publicity
provides it with an excellent public image and enhances
program of attraction. Once drawn into the movement, the
assumes the role of a novitiate or, in A.A. terminology,
"pigeon," "baby," or "newcomer."
Then the full process of
socialization or indoctrination commences.
proposes the following elements as constituting
the essence of religion:
The idea of the sacred.
2. The emotionally charged attitudes associated with the
3. The beliefs and practices that both express and re-enforce
4. The sharing of these beliefs and practices by a group
of worshipers, who represent a community marked by common
above paradigm provides a useful frame of reference for
our further analysis of the religious aspects of the A.A.
THE IDEA OF THE SACRED has its complement in A.A. sacred
persons, objects, and entities. The founders Bill W. and
are revered in the movement.
first A.A. clubhouse in the world, known as the Old 24th
Street Clubhouse, has become an international shrine. In
1960 the property on which the building stood at 334 1/2
Street, New York City, was appropriated for a new housing
A three-day farewell observance was arranged and the small
structure was disassembled and reconstructed one block away
West 23rd Street.
program for the farewell meetings best describes the
attitude of the A.A. members toward the shrine.
is undisputed that The Old 24th Street Clubhouse has a
unique spot in the hearts of members of A.A., not only in
United States but in foreign countries as well.
almost twenty years, it has been the source of
rehabilitation for thousands. It has served the program
indeed. It has been the home of General Service Headquarters,
witnessed the beginning of Intergroup and Grapevine Magazine
it provided a tiny room that served as home for Lois and
during the lean years of the early forties.
finds it still a center of constantly increasing
activities. It serves as Headquarters for the General Service
Conference Committee of the Southeastern District of New
provides a forum for sixteen A.A. meetings a week.
serves as a Mecca for A.A. visitors from all over the
world, who walk through the "Last Mile," visit
Bill's room (kept intact), sign the guest book and never
be awed by the warm humble atmosphere that embraces them.
this cradle of A.A. is facing the problem of moving. Its
present site is marked for demolition to make way for a
building project and the chorus of hopes from the thousands
the Clubhouse should never get away from A.A. has echoed
throughout the program for years, and has presently taken
of "Save the Historic Old Clubhouse as a Living Landmark
concept of God or The Higher Power, discussed previously,
is an important characteristic of the sacred in A.A. Alcoholics
Anonymous, "The Big Book," is in effect the bible
fellowship. Passages from the book are read at meetings
scripture is accepted as the final word on various issues.
volume is always prominently displayed at A.A. sessions,
on the lectern from which the members speak to the assemblage.
sacred items are the A.A. symbol, which may also be
worn in the form of a pin; A.A. slogans which are displayed
meeting room; The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions which
appear on some form of scroll; and the Serenity Prayer which
printed on a small plastic card.
THE EMOTIONALLY CHARGED ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE SACRED. This
is essentially an inherent characteristic of the sacred.
signifies feelings of respect, awe, and reverence which
maintain toward those elements of the fellowship discussed
THE BELIEFS AND PRACTICES THAT BOTH EXPRESS AND RE-ENFORCE
THE ATTITUDES TOWARD THE SACRED. This aspect of religion
to the rituals and ceremonies of the movement. The most
of these is the A.A. meeting, which in this context may
described as a devotional service. The group takes on the
of a congregation which usually conducts such services twice
weekly (the open and closed meeting). These sessions most
frequently take place in church buildings, commonly Roman
or some Protestant denomination. This serves to enhance
nature of the proceedings.
main feature of the meeting have already been described
in the chapter dealing with A.A. activities. The resemblance
religious service is apparent. The reading of the A.A. preamble;
the preaching of a portion of the "Big Book;"
the "conversion;" the taking up of a collection;
the veneration of
the A.A. movement; the celebration of a member's "birthday"
"anniversary;" the commemoration of the founding
date of the
group; and the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the conclusion
of every service are all indicative of the ceremonial affirmation
of the A.A. faith.
the message by means of the Twelfth Step call
further augments the religious fervor of the fellowship.
Proselytizing becomes the function of all members with respect
active alcoholics who would like to be saved. Each member
sense acts as a missionary.
THE SHARING OF THESE BELIEFS AND PRACTICES BY A GROUP OF
WORSHIPERS WHO REPRESENT A COMMUNITY MARKED BY COMMON MORAL
VALUES. Fundamentally, this pertains to the emergence of
religious system. A.A. cannot be classified as either a
denomination or a sect nor does it have the characteristics
cult. Having passed through the first stage of development
dominated by the charismatic founder, A.A. is now in the
phase of its growth in terms of a religious movement. It
emerged as a church which may be defined as the formal
organization of a group of worshipers who share common and
beliefs and rituals concerning the sacred objects and entities
they revere. Nottingham notes:
this second phase, which is often precipitated by the
advent of a second generation of believers, qualifications
membership are made more explicit and the lines of authority
the organization are more clearly drawn. Moreover, beliefs
the sacred person and mission of the founder are formulated
official theologies and creeds and a cult of the founder
formal acceptance of the beliefs embodied in such creeds
infrequently supersedes a more spontaneous, personal adherence
his teachings. Furthermore, religious practices . ..gradually
develop into formally prescribed rituals. If a movement
successfully survives the second stage, the third is
characteristically one of continued expansion and diversification.
The movement becomes established and takes on a variety
organizational forms.....At this stage a religious movement
confronts the danger of becoming a victim of its own success!"
is descriptive of A.A. The dangers inherent in the
transition to the third stage should not be overlooked by