Distinguishing Between Spirituality and Religion in Alcoholics Anonymous (Part 4 of a Series)

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June 4, 2013 by Dr. Bob Weathers

Distinguishing Between Spirituality and Religion in Alcoholics Anonymous

Part 4 of Series on

“Cross-Cultural Integration of Spiritual Resources in Recovery”

Thumb-Nail Review

In Part 1 of this current series we established the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.).  Next we explored A.A.’s cultural embeddedness within a traditionally Christian worldview.  We then identified a serious problem that arises for recovering individuals who need a cross-culturally more sensitive integration, than A.A.’s, of spiritual resources.  In Part 2 we introduced a key distinction between A.A.’s authenticity (ability to transform) and its ongoing legitimacy (ability to translate across time and cultures).  We identified the need for a more experience-near (as opposed to experience-distant) language; one which effectively communicates change across cultures.  In Part 3 we distinguished between two different ways of translating (or communicating).  The first approach focuses on getting the exact, literal form correct; the second, on capturing the essential meaning (or dynamic) underlying any specific, concrete form.  In looking toward spiritual resources in recovery, it is vital that we not mistake the map (or literal form) for the territory (spiritual dynamic); else we risk excluding some individuals sheerly on the basis of poor fit between one language and another culture.

Religion, Spirituality, and Cultural Context

Some contemporary commentators prefer to make a distinction between religion and spirituality (Elkins, 1998).  This differentiation rests right on the issue of formal correspondence vs. dynamic equivalence (which we discussed in detail in Part 3 of this series).  What is crucial in this distinction is discovering that which aids one the most in moving beyond the compulsively and exclusively thought-based self — often ascribed to, or even blamed upon, religion.  The goal is to instead move toward a more expansive, spiritually grounded sense of non-thought-based identity (equated with spirituality).  (See Part 3, where we first introduced the idea of spirituality, common to all the world’s wisdom traditions, which invites and evokes moving beyond simply mental or emotional identification.)

Of course, if and when conventional Christian language achieves that goal for a given individual, embedded within a given culture, then wonderful!  But if this same language, or any other language, serves instead as primarily only an impediment, then the ethically responsible goal is to then find a more adequate, culturally attuned language toward that end.

Now it isn’t lost on the careful observer that A.A. leaves it up to the individual in recovery to find the “God of one’s own understanding.”  But notice the language even here:

“There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him [emphasis added], to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch.”  (Anonymous, 2009b, loc. 305).

Surely much of this language is a vestige of the time and cultural milieu in which A.A. was founded; nearly a century ago.  Yet language is nevertheless critical as a signpost, even as it ultimately points beyond itself.   This is the case in any authentic spirituality, and the self-transformation that follows.  All the more reason then that A.A. ought rightly to stay open to other cultural expressions.  Such cultural expressions include those of more contemporary renditions.  Later in this same series, we intend to introduce an integrative dialogue between A.A. and Eckhart Tolle’s immensely popular, culturally valid, though less explicitly Christian, teachings.  The underlying wish here is to provide one example of an alternative cultural expression which might remain true to the essential healing dynamic at the core of the A.A. treatment philosophy.

Next Up:

The Higher Power of Alcoholics Anonymous as “You”


Anonymous (2009b). Alcoholics Anonymous (Kindle edition). Retrieved from

Elkins, D. L. (1998).  Beyond religion. Wheaton, IL: Quest.


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