Introducing the Non-Religious in Alcoholics Anonymous


  • Zachary A Munro University of Waterloo



Non-Religion, Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve-Steps


The religious dimensions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have long caused tensions for the non-religious involved in the fellowship. In response to these challenges, an increasing number of secular meeting groups have begun emerging, offering non-religious approaches to AA's Twelve Step model of recovery. Drawing on qualitative interview and observational data with members of secular groups located in Toronto, Canada, this article explores how non-religion manifests as meaningful difference in the lives of the non-religious navigating AA. As religion is encountered, participants describe how their non-religious identities became problematized, characterized as active impediments to recovery, and how non-religion is often experienced as a source of struggle and conflict. Despite such challenges, as the non-religious persist in active engagement with AA they participate in new labours of nonreligion, producing new agential spaces and new interpretations and expressions of AA's Twelve Step model of recovery. In recognizing non-religion as meaningful difference and attending to the ways it manifests and operates within AA, this article argues that attention to non-religion in AA provides new opportunities for both research into the substantial features of non-religion and integrative paths for the non-religious in AA and Twelve Step fellowships more broadly.

Author Biography

Zachary A Munro, University of Waterloo

PhD Candidate, department of Sociology & Legal Studies


AA Agnostica.

AA Beyond Belief.

Adam N. 2015. Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous. AA Agnostica.

Alcoholics Anonymous. 2001 [1939]. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. Fourth Edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.

Agrama, Hussein. 2010. “Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State?” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52(3): 495–523.

Amir-Moazami, Schirin. 2016. “Investigating the Secular Body: The Politics of the Male Circumcision Debate in Germany.” ReOrient 1(2): 147–170.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Baker, Joseph and Buster Smith. 2009. “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48(4): 719–733.

Bob, K. 2015. Key Players in AA History. AA Agnostica.

Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Introducing Irreligious Experiences.” Implicit Religion 11(1): 7–24.

Bullivant, Stephen and Ruse, Michael, eds. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2018. “Europe’s Young Adults and Religion: Findings from the European Social Survey (2014–2016) to inform the 2018 Synod of Bishops.” St. Mary’s University Twickenham: Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caldwell, Paul. 1999. “Fostering Client Connections with Alcoholics Anonymous: A Framework for Social Workers in Various Practice Settings.” Social Work in Health Care 28(4): 45–61.

Caldwell, Paul and Henry Cutter. 1998. “Alcoholics Anonymous affiliation during early recovery.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 15(3): 221–228.

Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. New York: Macmillan.

Cleveland, Martha and Arlys G. 2014. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. AA Agnostica.

Dale K. 2017. A Secular Sobriety. CreateSpace.

Davie, Grace. 2012. “Belief and Unbelief: Two Sides of a Coin.” Approaching Religion 2(1): 3–7.

Day, Ed, Rosemary Wall, Gagandeep Chohan, and Jennifer Seddon. 2015. “Perceptions of Professional Drug Treatment Staff in England about Client Barriers to Narcotics Anonymous Attendance.” Addict Res Theory 23: 223–230.

Dick, B. 1992. The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living that Works. Kihei, HI: Paradise Research.

Dossett, Wendy. 2013. “Spirituality and 12-Step Programmes.” International Social Work 56(3): 369–383.

———. 2017. “Reflections on the Language of Salvation in Twelve Step Recovery” in Alternative Salvations: Engaging the Sacred and the Secular. London: Bloomsbury.

Farman, Abou. “Speculative Matter: Secular Bodies, Minds, and Persons.” Cultural Anthropology 28(4): 737–759.

Furani, Khaled. 2012. Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Galen, Luke, Todd Williams, and Amy Ver Wey. 2014. “Personality Ratings Are Influenced by Religious Stereotype and Ingroup Bias.” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 24(4): 282–297.

Galen, Luke. 2017. “Secular Prosociality and Well-being” In The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, edited by Phil Zuckerman and John Shook, 533–553. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2018. “Focusing on the Nonreligious Reveals Secular Mechanisms Underlying Well-Being and Prosociality.” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 10(3): 296–306.

Guenther, Katja. 2014. “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate themselves from Religious Believers” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29(1): 1–16.

Habermas, Jurgen. 2008. “Notes on Post-Secular Society.” New Perspectives Quarterly 25: 17–29.

Joe C. 2013. Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for the 12 Step Life. Toronto: Rebellion Dogs.

Kelly, John. 2017. “Is Alcoholics Anonymous Religious, Spiritual, Neither? Findings from Twenty-five Years of Mechanisms of Behavior Change research.” Addiction 112(6): 929–936.

Koenig, Harold. 2007. Spirituality in Patient Care: Why, How, When, and What. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation.

Koenig, Harold, Dana King, and Verna Carson. 2012. Handbook of Religion and Health, second ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kurtz, Ernest. 1979. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.

Kurtz, Ernest and William White. 2015. “Recovery Spirituality.” Religions 6: 58–81.

Laudet, Alexandre. 2003. “Attitudes and Beliefs about 12-Step Groups among Addiction Treatment Clients and Clinicians: Towards Identifying Obstacles to Participation.” Substance Use and Misuse 38(14): 2017–2047.

Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Non-Religious. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McGuire, Meredith. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McKellar, John, Eric Stewart, and Keith Humphreys. 2003. “Alcoholics Anonymous involvement and positive alcohol-related outcomes: cause, consequence, or just a correlate? A prospective 2-year study of 2,319 alcohol-dependent men.” Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology 71(2): 302–308.

Montgomery, Henry A., William R. Miller, and J. Scott Tonigan. 1993. “Differences among AA groups: Implications for Research.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 54(4): 502–504.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2011. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nowinski, Joseph, Carroll, Kathleen, Baker, Stuart, and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse Alcoholism. 1995. Twelve Step Facilitation Therapy Manual: A Clinical Research Guide for Therapists Treating Individuals with Alcohol Abuse and Dependence. US Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Nowinski, Joseph, Stuart Baker. 2003. The Twelve Step Facilitation Handbook: A Systematic Approach to Recovery from Substance Dependence. The Project Match Twelve Step Treatment Protocol. Center City, MN: Hazelden Foundation.

Orsi, Robert. 2002. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem. Second edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pittman, Bill. 1988. AA: The Way it Began. Seattle: Glen Abbey.

Putnam, Robert., and David Campbell. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Roger C. 2013. The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. AA Agnostica.

———. 2014. Don’t Tell: Stories and Essays by Agnostics and Atheists in AA. AA Agnostica.

———.2015. Do Tell!: Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA. AA Agnostica.

———. 2017. A History of Agnostics in AA. AA Agnostica.

Rudy, David. R. and Arthur L. Greil. 1989. “Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Religious Organization?: Meditations on Marginality.” Sociological Analysis 50(1): 41–51.

Scrivener, Leslie. “Does Religion Belong At AA? Fight over ‘God Splits Toronto AA Groups.’” The Toronto Star. 3 June.

Secular AA.

Sperry, Len and Lisa Miller. 2016. “Secular Spirituality and Spirituality Sensitive Clinical Care.” Spirituality in Clinical Practice 3(4): 221–223.

Taves, Ann. 2016. Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths. New Haven, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: University Press.

———. 2011. Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism. In The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, edited by Jonathan VanAntwerpen, 34–59. New York: Columbia University Press.

Thiessen, Joel and Sarah Willkins-Laflamme. 2017. “Becoming a religious none: Irreligious socialization and disaffiliation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 56(1): 64–82.

Tonigan, J. Scott, William. R. Miller, and Carol Schermer. 2002. “Atheists, Agnostics, and Alcoholics Anonymous.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 63(5): 534–541.

Travis, Trysh. 2009. The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Utriainen, Terhi, Tuija Hovi, and Mans Broo. 2012. “Combining Choice and Destiny: Identity and Agency within Post-Secular Well-being Practices.” In Post-Secular Society, edited by Peter Nynas, Mika Lassander, and Terhi Utrianen, 187–216. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Valverde, Mariana. 1998. Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Voas, David. 2009. “The rise and fall of fuzzy fidelity in Europe.” European Sociological Review 25(2): 155–168.

Voxx, Archer. 2013. The Five Keys: 12 Step Recovery Without A God. Middletown, DE: Maze.

Walach, Harold. 2014. Secular Spirituality: The Next Step Towards Enlightenment. New York: Springer.

White, William L. 1998. Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Bloomington, IL: Chestnut Health Systems.

Winzelberg, Andrew and Keith Humphreys. 1999. “Should Patients’ Religiosity Influence Clinicians’ Referral to 12-step Self-help Groups? Evidence from a Study of 3,018 Male Substance Abuse Patients.” Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology 67(5): 790–794.

Zuckerman, Phil. 2008. Society Without God. New York: New York University Press.



How to Cite

Munro, Z. A. (2020). Introducing the Non-Religious in Alcoholics Anonymous. Implicit Religion, 22(2), 194–214.