The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Twelve Steps, Seven Principles:
UUs in Alcoholics Anonymous
By Michelle Huneven

January/February 2000

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Like any other group its size, the Unitarian Universalist religious movement has its share of alcoholics. How many Unitarian Universalists belong or have belonged to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)—the world’s best-known and biggest treatment program—is anybody’s guess. Anonymity makes such a calculation impossible. But clearly, AA UUs number in the hundreds if not the thousands.

In response to a query placed in this magazine, over 130 alcoholics and a handful of Al Anons (family and friends of alcoholics), ACOA’s (Adult Children of Alcoholics), and professionals working in recovery volunteered to share their experience, opinions, and often passionate feelings on the subject. The lion’s share of this report consists of UU/AAs speaking in their myriad, diverse voices.

Alcoholics Anonymous began in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, when an alcoholic traveling salesman named Bill Wilson and a hopelessly besotted physician named Bob Smith began a long conversation about their experiences with alcohol. Together they decided that the way to fight alcoholism was with other alcoholics; that alcoholics who, in Bill Wilson’s words, shared “their experience, strength, and hope” with one another could stay sober and save each other’s lives.

Within a few years, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous had a text, Alcoholics Anonymous (generally known as The Big Book); a program for recovery for alcoholism, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous; and a peculiarly unorganized, decentralized, purposefully unaffiliated set of operating principles, the 12 Traditions.

Then and now AA meetings have been the mainstay of the fellowship, which now has around two million members worldwide. Meetings are led by a group’s elected secretary, supported by voluntary contributions, and governed by the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous with very occasional input from the central New York office.

The most salient characteristic of the responses to our query of UU alcoholics and their friends was a polar split between Unitarian Universalists who embrace Alcoholics Anonymous and UUs who reject it, both on the same grounds—what I call the God Issue. This split is not unique to UUs. AA’s religious, or spiritual, content has led to resistance since the program’s inception, when AA was attached to the Oxford Group Movement (today called Moral Rearmament), a progressive English spiritual group that sought a return to the spiritual principles and values of early Christianity. Bill Wilson had joined the New York branch of the Oxford Group after detoxing and in fact had met Bob Smith through the group. However, the group’s aggressive evangelizing alienated many potential AA members, and Catholic alcoholics in particular had difficulties with the Protestant group’s alternative Bible and its practices of public confession and giving guidance, which clearly contradicted Catholic doctrine. Eventually AA severed its connection to the Oxford Group.

Nor did all religious liberals find the movement to their liking in its early days. The prominent and influential Rev. Dilworth Lupton, minister of First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, Ohio, who was known for the help he gave to alcoholics, declined to attend an AA meeting so long as it was affiliated with the Oxford Group. He told the woman who had invited him, whose husband Lupton had helped to stay sober, “Inasmuch as AA [is] mixed up with the Oxford movement, it [is] bound to fail. . . . Any movement as tremendous as this should never be mixed up with a religious foundation.” A year later, when the groups had broken away from the Oxford Movement, Lupton read The Big Book, attended a meeting, and met at length with some of the newly recovered alcoholics. Impressed, he preached about this new hope for a previously hopeless condition. His sermon, titled “Mr. X. and Alcoholics Anonymous,” was promptly made into a pamphlet that is still reprinted from time to time. Both sermon and pamphlet helped swell the ranks of the newly sober.

But despite its break with the Oxford Movement and Lupton’s subsequent endorsement of it, AA retained too much religious flavor to suit some potential members. For example, the 12 Steps claim that “a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”—and sobriety—and suggest that alcoholics make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.” Further along in recovery, members are expected to continue to seek “through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Meetings have traditionally opened with the Serenity Prayer and closed with a reading from The Big Book and a hand-holding prayer—often the Lord’s Prayer, although this practice is changing. With the readings, the occasional group recitations, and the prayers, AA meetings do have a vaguely liturgical structure, though that varies somewhat from meeting to meeting.
Furthermore, though the 12 Steps resemble religious practices such as the Buddhist Lo Jong, they are clearly derived from Western, Judeo-Christian culture. They describe a spiritual practice distilled from many sources including the Oxford Group Movement, Carl Jung’s view of alcoholism as a spiritual malady, William James’s belief that there are a “variety of religious experiences,” and St. Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual exercises. Indeed, Bill Wilson’s own Higher Power very closely resembles the Christian God (in his famous conversion experience in a hospital, he declared he’d met the “God of the preachers”), although his evangelistic zeal was tempered in the writing of The Big Book and the 12 Steps after agnostic members urged him to broaden his wording so as not to alienate the less religiously inclined. Thus, the more equivocal “God as we understand Him” was inserted, a gesture considered remarkably, even revolutionarily open-minded at the time, though today it seems quaintly parochial and not nearly inclusive enough to some.

While the God of AA is supposed to be privately defined by each alcoholic for him or herself, in the public imagination this God of the 12 Steps too easily gets conflated with the general Protestant God of our “one nation under God.” Many agnostics and atheists balk at the very word God, refusing to translate the metaphor. And since Unitarian Universalism houses a good many secularists, humanists, agnostics, and atheists—not to mention Buddhists, pagans, Hindus, Jews, and other non-Christians—it isn’t surprising that the denomination contains a contingent critical of AA.

About a fifth of UUs responding to the World’s query and a follow-up questionnaire said AA is over-religious and therefore unacceptable, ineffective, or even repellent to them. “I have found AA’s philosophy and religious stance very unhelpful,” writes Bruce W. of California. “It seems to me thoroughly theistic and basically Christian. One must accept the scriptures and the faith of AA or be condemned to the hell of alcoholism. . . . Friends have advised me to take what I can from AA without worrying about the rest. However, this makes me feel like a hypocrite. I have no intention of believing in a personal God. Nothing, to paraphrase Emerson, is more sacred to me than the integrity of my mind.”

Kim J., 42, a New Age theist with seven years of sobriety, writes, “I quit going to AA about 1995. I couldn’t relate to the punishing ‘values’ and got very sick of hearing the phrase ‘That light bulb could be your higher power’ and the murmurs of ‘poor slob—still too much in the disease to believe in the right god.’ I’m not saying AA is bad, just that it didn’t fit me, and it’s not the only way to stay sober. I did feel I found a home when I came to the UU church.”

Peter S., 47 and 10 years sober, a Wiccan/pagan who attended a total of 13 AA meetings, says he found AA “depressing and ill-serving to my needs” and thought UUism and AA were theologically incompatible. Active in  the Covenant of UU Pagans and in his local congregation, Peter says, “The church was and is the biggest part of my recovery.”

Other UU alcoholics find ways to modify AA doctrine to accommodate their own beliefs. “I’m not keen on seeing God as Him,” says Mark H., a UU seminary student. “But then, I’m not keen on God as Her, either. That’s just swapping one anthropomorphism for another. When I have to read the steps in meetings, I always say, ‘God as I understand God,’ and so far nobody’s batted an eye.” Buddhists, who are nontheistic, also have some difficulty translating the God concept into something meaningful to themselves. Tom T., a UU Buddhist writes, “Instead of choosing my own conception of God, I choose [a] metaphor [with which] to view the world.”

Another subset of the UU alcoholics who feel uncomfortable in traditional AA meetings have found or created alternative groups to help themselves and others recover from alcoholism. One large group in the Midwest is called Atheists and Agnostics in AA (Quad A, for short). Don W., a Chicago UU and the only surviving member of the first Quad A meeting 25 years ago, still attends Quad A meetings, which are designed, in his words, “to help atheist/agnostic/anything alcoholics make full use of AA and the 12 Step program of recovery which has restored so many of us to a life worth living.”

Rational Recovery, a group that, like AA, advocates that alcoholics talk to each other in order to stay sober but that has expunged any spiritual content from those discussions, also has its proponents.

Other UUs have tried alternative programs with disappointing results. Merle R., a lifelong nontheistic UU with 12 years of sobriety, says, “In my second year of sobriety, I went regularly to an Atheists and Agnostics meeting at the same UU church I’d attended as a child. . . . I thought these meetings might give me something in addition to what I was getting from regular AA. But most of the time was spent criticizing and complaining about traditional AA: people kept saying that Christianity had been crammed down their throats in other AA meetings. I’d been to at least 400 meetings by then, and nobody had ever even once tried to cram Christianity or anything else down my throat.”

Merle says he soon came to understand that “even the words ‘God’ and ‘prayer’ were offensive to this mostly male [Quad A] group, as was any appeal to something other than themselves. One man used to say, ‘God didn’t get me sober. I got me sober. Why give the credit to anybody or anything else?’ It seemed to me an ego-thing, that these people didn’t want to admit to a power other than themselves.”

On the other end of the spectrum from the UU critics of AA are those who find that UUism and AA make a perfect match. Many of these people, including a growing group of seminary students and ministers, had their first spiritual experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous and then came over to UUism.

Dick, 75, with over 12 years of sobriety, has been a UU for five of those years. He credits his AA spirituality with leading him to Unitarian Universalism. “I am a believer in a Higher Power, which I refer to as God for lack of another fitting word. I am not a believer in an organized Christian religion. The UU concepts are right up my alley.” He adds: “Organized religion is for those who are afraid they will go to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there. If that isn’t AA and UU together, what is?”

Krista P., 28, with four years of continuous sobriety (and seven years of AA), agrees that AA and UUism complement each other. After joining AA, she went looking for a spiritual connection, she recalls. “I had picked up the local gay/lesbian publication and was going to go to some other church, but it had moved, so I picked the next one on the list—UU,” she says. “It turned out to be pink triangle day. Wow! I’ve been there ever since.”

Meanwhile, Gene H., 59 and 17 years sober in AA, writes that UUism and AA “are entirely compatible. . . . Whatever good deeds that the UUers and AAers do are done here and now for their own sake and not for some payoff in an afterlife.”

Finally, Tom T., 45, nine years sober, and a Theravadan UU Buddhist, adds that UUism is a “good fit” for AA members. “Most alcoholics,” he says, “seem to have rejected the religion of their upbringing, as it didn’t work for them. The ones who come to UU seem happy to find it.”

Yet another group of UUs attended AA meetings but eventually moved on. Ken M.,with 12 years of sobriety, says, “AA led to UUism because it instilled in me a desire to become part of a spiritual community and to work to develop spiritual growth.” He says he went to AA “religiously” for six years. Now active in church, he attends AA meetings rarely. “Over time,” he reports, “I became discouraged with hearing the same old stories (ones I had recited myself about no girlfriend, no good job, no this, no that) and about newly sober drunks finding God, etc.” Despite these objections, he says he still feels that “AA has an important lifesaving message that needs to be heard over the Jesus and Higher Power stuff.”

Of course AA and UUism, whatever their affinities, do have completely different goals. When asked what AA offered them that UUism did not, survey respondents included things like

• “The ability to live. My self-respect. The ability to be a parent. Literally, my life.”
• “A safe place where others truly understand my addictions. The general public (even UUs) does not.”
• “Something. . . not available anywhere else on earth: a kind of understanding and love and acceptance.”
• “A safety net.”
• “A living memory of alcoholism, which prevents my return to it.”
• “A place to remember why I stopped drinking and the encouragement not to start again.”
• “An opportunity to identify with others that share our common problem. . . . An opportunity to help others to recover, which in turn helps me stay recovered.”
• “AA is where people know what it is to be alcoholic.”
• “A community that knows me inside and out. I was a drunken, drug-addicted, sexually obsessed, self-centered ass, and no one at church confronted me.”
• “A community of sober people who understand me as an alcoholic/addict and know that I always will be at risk should I decide I could drink again. Just as I share life experience with other lesbians, I share a history with AAs—with each group we can say ‘we’ and be understood without further explanation.”

“One thing that AA does provide that the UU community often does not,” adds one more respondent, “is unconditional acceptance. In the UU church there is no thoroughly articulated obligation to listen to others; in fact rationalism and the importance of argumentation can sometimes overwhelm a congregation. I think one can find the importance of uncritical listening in the UU principles, but it does not come to the forefront the way it does in AA.”
Of course, AAs also get things from UUism that they don’t get in AA. Our respondents mention

• “A more diverse religious community, including children and adult non-alcoholics.”
• “Everything! Connections, community, and a real sense of belonging to something that is bigger than myself that needs my participation and commitment.”
• “An opportunity to gather with others in my own community on this path.”
• “A greater context. AAs can get insular and smug. UUs have a side that is concerned in a positive and constructive way with the world outside the chapel or meeting room. I get wonderful friendships from church.”
• “The principles—and more outlets, in that the UU church does promote certain political issues and causes that AA cannot.”
• “Deep, enriching, and lasting friendships. I have not been able to find that in AA.”
• “Intelligent folk that are less self-centered and better educated than AAs.”
• “A forum to explore my spirituality.”

As for AA members’ feeling about their UU ministers, I again found a wide range of data. Some AAs lament their ministers’ lack of knowledge about AA, while some AA members are themselves ministers. Some sober congregants report feeling somewhat supported or very supported by their ministers, while other AAs feel their AA life and church life have virtually nothing to do with each other and thus don’t even seek support from their churches. One man reports that his minister, “who has been with us for 10 years, once gave a sermon very critical of AA. The sermon discussion afterward was the most raucous and garnered the largest attendance of any during the period I have been associated with the church. There was a lot of energy spent informing the minister of the value of AA, and one woman actually broke her anonymity.” The minister learned from the experience. “That was at least five years ago and I have never heard that minister utter another critical word regarding AA,” writes the man.

AA meetings at a UU summer conference helped one minister get sober. The Rev. Eileen K., 55, writes, “I had begun to wonder whether my drinking was somehow connected with what was going wrong in my life, especially physically, but had been assured it was no problem by my minister and my physician. I went to [the conference] that July to lead a workshop. On the conference schedule, there is an AA meeting every evening. I went and discovered that there was a chemical reason for what was happening to me; I got more answers and clarity from three AA meetings than I had gotten over the past two years of asking professionals.”

By contrast, one religious education director with over 15 years of sobriety says she had to take a sabbatical from her church in order to get sober. She writes that “the minister was a big drinker, the church was very alcohol-oriented, and every time I came to a social event, everyone was drinking. One of the assistants at the church was a practicing alcoholic and used to keep a jug in her desk, and the minister just thought this was amusing; it was the source of a lot of joking. Eventually, he left, and I returned to church, where the new minister is much more educated about alcoholism.”

In a similar vein Sharon S., sober for 10 years and actively involved in a UU church for six, writes that “for a group of people as respectful of diversity as our congregation strives to be, they certainly can be blind to the fact that there are recovering alcoholics among them! At one point, the parish house refrigerator was so full of wine and champagne bottles that nothing else could be put in. Without directly breaking anonymity, I pointed this out to the board president, and the situation has not arisen since.”

On the other hand, AA plays a large role at some churches. Don H., the son of a UU minister, a lifelong UU, and 20 years sober (see “The Damaged Ones like Me”), writes, “Our congregation is very generous in hosting more 12 Step meetings than any other church in the area. We have lots of theft problems and occasional vandalism as a result. But we do outstanding work at overcoming these hurts and staying supportive to the recovering community.” He adds that the church also has “an AA speaker each year during the congregation-run services, and we have [AA] literature and schedules posted on the bulletin board.”

Don’s fellow parishioner Gene H., 59, 17 years sober and 11 years a UU, adds, “Personally, I feel helping AA to save lives is our church’s largest contribution to our community.”

Though Denis M., a sober 56-year-old ministry student and certified addictions counselor, says he feels “that the UU church is perhaps the best [church] in which to recover from addiction,” he believes that we still “have a ways to go to educate congregations and the ministry in how to hold recovering people.” He recommends something “along the lines of the Welcoming Congregation Program.”

Clearly, Unitarian Universalism manages peacefully to contain within its body a vast range of opinions and feelings about AA—all the while housing many a meeting in its churches! Meanwhile, AA somehow manages to welcome a diversity of religious and spiritual opinions and feelings. While theologically and psychologically the two may not make a perfect match, both evince a far-reaching if still imperfect tolerance. 

“One of the issues I run into with UUs and AA is a kind of snobbery,” writes longtime UU Rebecca H. “AA is truly a grass-roots (i.e., working-class) movement, especially when you get outside a major metropolitan area. In a way it’s the Brahmin Unitarians resisting the populist Universalists all over again.

“On the other hand, there is a huge AA faction that disparages intellectuality. One editor I knew who got sober some 20 years ago was actually told not to go to college because he would become ‘too smart to stay sober.’” 
It’s with these and similar frictions in mind that Clair L., 46 years sober, offers some blunt but wise advice to UUs struggling to stay sober or embarking on a program of recovery. 

“Snobbish though it may be,” she says, “I think a conscious decision to suffer fools gladly can free one to walk with many different groups in comfort.”

Michelle Huneven is a freelance journalist and author of Round Rock (Vintage, 1998) a novel about recovering alcoholics.

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