The dog-thing

December 11, 2022 Comments Off on The dog-thing

I learned a great word the other day, “apatheist,” a combination of “apathy” and “atheist.” It fits me perfectly. Basically, it means “I am not interested in the subject of religion.”

It differs from atheism, which indicates that you’ve thought about theism and concluded that you don’t believe in it, and it’s different from agnosticism, which indicates that you’ve thought about theism and can’t conclude one way or another. The apatheist is like the hard-core NFL fan being proselytized about the Tour. He simply doesn’t care, and no matter how much you do, he doesn’t.

My first AA meeting was, to use a religious concept, a revelation. I had no idea that AA was a religious organization or that its abstinence program adhered to strictly religious principles. It was a bit revolting, actually, realizing that going forward I’d be asked to recite prayers, believe in dog, and ask him to relieve me of my suffering which, although initially characterized in the Big Book as a medical illness, I now found out had put on a new uniform and was in fact a spiritual malady.

I couldn’t help wondering why I was being asked to pray to get well rather than listening to a medical/scientific rendition of my problem since alcoholism is a disorder that falls under addiction, and addiction is a well-studied if not perfectly understood subject of scientific research. I also couldn’t help wondering how AA gets away with telling newcomers that it’s not a church, but that you have to believe in god. After reading the Big Book a couple of times it became clear that “we’re spiritual, not religious” was simply a ploy to overcome the resistance that most people with severe Alcohol Use Disorder have to religious flummery.

Nothing will make you an atheist more quickly than severe addiction.

Moreover, AA tries to convince you that it’s not a religion with a completely indigestible bowl of word salad that says yes, you have to believe in god, but that’s not religion because YOU GET TO PICK THE GOD, or in their words, turn your life and will over to “god as you understand him.” It’s like someone saying “You can wear any color you want as long as it’s black.”

So I wondered about the notion that AA is not religious, and turned to a place that has a lot of experience answering that very question, also known as our court system, because guess what? Prisoners and probationers often get assigned to AA as a condition of parole or early release or for earning good conduct points, and lots of those prisoners don’t like being forced to listen to religious claptrap. And numerous prisoners have asked courts how forced attendance at AA can get around that pesky little clause in the U.S. Constitution known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which basically says that the state may not establish a religion, discriminate against religion or non-religion, nor may it force people to worship, be religiously indoctrinated, or participate in religious exercise.

The idea has been thoroughly litigated, and the legal reasoning in these cases chops apart AA’s false claim that they are not religious not once, but repeatedly and consistently over a period spanning almost twenty years.

Fact: AA meetings are religious exercises.

Fact: The following court decisions explain why.

827 F. Supp. 261 (1993), Robert WARNER, Plaintiff, v. ORANGE COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF PROBATION, Defendant. No. 93 Civ. 1544 (GLG). United States District Court, S.D. New York. July 29, 1993. Upheld on appeal to the NY S.Ct.

This decision is one of the most cited texts outlining exactly why AA is religious in nature. In Warner, the court ruled that given the language of the Big Book and AA chapter practices, it cannot be said that AA does not have a religious component. This case followed U.S. Supreme Court precedent holding that you don’t need a single deity to be a religion. This means that AA can’t argue that spirituality removes it from the status of a religious organization. When AA members assert that their appeal to spirituality is dog “as you understand him,” and that therefore the organization isn’t a religious one, this decision refutes them.

It’s an important decision because it is a federal appeals court just one step below the Supreme Court in the influential 2nd Circuit, and because it dashes the notion that AA is secular. With Warner and indeed almost all the other cases considering this issue, from the perspective of someone who is simply attending AA as opposed to being a prisoner forced to attend, I think it’s useful, instead of asking “Is AA a religious organization?” to ask instead “Is it a secular one?” From that approach, there’s simply no question that an organization founded on turning one’s will over to god is secular, and if it’s not secular, well, then, it must be …

Seven years later, another New York federal district court considered the same matter in Alexander v. Schenk, 118 F. Supp. 2d 298 (N.D.N.Y. 2000), and found that forcing inmates to attend AA-based treatment was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause because the heart of AA’s program is “unequivocally religious.”

Think about the phrase “unequivocally religious” the next time someone at AA claims that the program is anything less, or when they tell you it’s “spiritual not religious” or when they tell you that because you get to pick the god it is somehow not religion.

88 N.Y.2d 674 (1996), 673 N.E.2d 98, 649 N.Y.S.2d 903, In the Matter of David Griffin, Appellant, v. Thomas A. Coughlin, III, as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, et al., Respondents. Court of Appeals of the State of New York. Argued February 15, 1996. Decided June 11, 1996.

In this case, a New York appeals court had to decide whether AA was secular or religious because an inmate claimed that forced participation in AA violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the state from coercing religious participation. The case is very good because it deftly counters all of the arguments typically made by AA members and sponsors, especially the one that AA is “spiritual not religious” and that it’s not really religious because you get to pray to dog “as you understand him.”

The Griffin court summarily rejected the argument that AA was secular or non-religious: “Concededly, there are passages in A.A. literature, relied upon heavily by respondents, the Appellate Division and the dissent here, which, in stressing the openness and inclusiveness of the A.A. movement, eschew any intent to impose a particular sectarian set of beliefs or a particular concept of God upon participants. However, a fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious, certainly in the broad definitional sense as ‘manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary 995 [9th ed 1990]). Indeed, the A.A. basic literature most reasonably would be characterized as reflecting the traditional elements common to most theistic religions.”

The court continued, “While A.A. literature declares an openness and tolerance for each participant’s personal vision of God (‘as we understood Him’ [Steps 3 and 11] [emphasis in the original]), the writings demonstrably express an aspiration that each member of the movement will ultimately commit to a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being of independent higher reality than humankind.”

Removing any doubt as to whether or not AA is a religious organization, the court held that “doctrinally and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the A.A. fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization. Followers are urged to accept the existence of God as a Supreme Being, Creator, Father of Light and Spirit of the Universe. In ‘working’ the 12 steps, participants become actively involved in seeking such a God through prayer, confessing wrongs and asking for removal of shortcomings. These expressions and practices constitute, as a matter of law, religious exercise for Establishment Clause purposes, no less than the nondenominational prayer in Engel v Vitale (370 US 421), that is, ‘a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty. The nature of such a prayer has always been religious’ (id., at 424-425 [emphasis supplied]; see also, Lee v Weisman, 505 US 577, 603-604 [Blackmun, J., concurring]).” And “That is, the A.A. basic doctrinal writings clearly express a preference for and a conviction favoring a concept of God and prayer which is not merely a conscientious social belief, or a sincere devotion to a high moralistic philosophy [but] one based upon an individual’s belief in his responsibility to an authority higher and beyond any worldly one.’”

The AA Big Book and the accompanying explanatory volume that includes The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions represent texts that are “unequivocally religious in theme and proselytizing in content.” Many in AA would argue that whatever the religious content, the goal of the organization is sobriety and helping people with AUD recover. The court agrees, but never takes its eye off the ball: “Thus, while it is of course true that the primary objective of A.A. is to enable its adherents to achieve sobriety, its doctrine unmistakably urges that the path to staying sober and to becoming ‘happily and usefully whole,’ is by wholeheartedly embracing traditional theistic belief.”

The Griffin case is also enlightening because it’s the only one that mentions a core element of AA, proselytizing, and links it to religious practice. Who hasn’t been accosted by the bible beater in the parking lot or at the front door, eyes blazing, hands tightly clutching The Word, and, for just a few moments of time, would like to know if you’ve been saved?

Proselytizing in the context of books and ideas that contain god and spirituality are de facto religious because a core tenet of many religions is the obligation on the faithful to convert the heathens. AA’s Twelfth Step doesn’t exhort you to simply help other alcoholics, it commands you to help them through the Twelve religious Steps, and yes, there’s a word for that and it’s called “conversion.” Jews and other religious minorities have run across the concept before.

Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 1996).

This appellate case from the 7th Circuit remains one of the best decisions debunking the claim that AA only has religious “overtones” or that it is “spiritual rather than religious.” To the contrary, the 7th Circuit used clear and convincing analysis of both law and fact to conclude that AA is inescapably religious in its operation, and therefore results in religion being favored over atheism in violation of the Establishment Clause. From a legal standpoint, which doesn’t really matter to the average AA participant, the 7th Circuit explained that the traditional Lemon v. Kurtzman test used by other courts is actually inapposite to claims where a petitioner asserts that he is being coerced into religious participation. For this reason, the decision is worth reading, as it distills a complicated issue in simple and well-reasoned fashion. Rather than the Lemon test, the court applied the coercion test in Lee v. Wiseman, correctly understanding that the issue of religious discrimination differs from the issue of religious coercion.

In concluding that AA was religious, the 7th Circuit said that “The district court thought that the NA [Narcotics Anonymous] program escaped the ‘religious’ label because the twelve steps used phrases like ‘God, as we understood Him,’ and because the warden indicated that the concept of God could include the non-religious idea of willpower within the individual. We are unable to agree with this interpretation. A straightforward reading of the twelve steps shows clearly that the steps are based on the monotheistic idea of a single God or Supreme Being. True, that God might be known as Allah to some, or YHWH to others, or the Holy Trinity to still others, but the twelve steps consistently refer to ‘God, as we understood Him.’ Even if we expanded the steps to include polytheistic ideals, or animistic philosophies, they are still fundamentally based on a religious concept of a Higher Power. Kerr alleged, furthermore, that the meetings were permeated with explicit religious content. This was therefore not a case (again, on the present record) where the only religious note was struck by the insertion of the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, or other incidental references that the courts have upheld. See, e.g., Sherman v. Wheeling School District, 980 F.2d 437 (7th Cir. 1992). Because that is true, the program runs afoul of the prohibition against the state’s favoring religion in general over non-religion.”

This analysis emphatically argues what anyone who has sat through an AA meeting knows: The Twelve Steps are based on a religious conception of god.

956 S.W.2d 478, Jimmy ARNOLD, Petitioner, v. TENNESSEE BOARD OF PAROLES, et al. Respondents. Supreme Court of Tennessee, at Nashville. Nov. 10, 1997.

This case from the Supreme Court of Tennessee, after reviewing Arnold’s claim that being forced to attend AA meetings violated the Establishment Clause, remanded the case to the district court for a finding of whether or not AA’s treatment program was a religious one. “If, on remand, the trial court finds that the treatment program at issue is a religious one and that there are no alternative secular treatment programs offered, then to require a prisoner to attend or participate in such a treatment program would constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause. Attending or failing to attend such religious meetings can not be considered in a decision whether to grant or deny parole.”

The court relied on Warner, Griffin, and Kerr, and although it didn’t rule on whether or not AA was religious, it cited these prior courts and their stance on AA with approval. Since the district court’s ruling after remand wasn’t appealed, we don’t know what the final decision was, but it’s a very good bet that the district court followed the Supreme Court’s intimation that these meetings were religious and therefore could not be mandated by the state.

Warburton v. Underwood, 2 F. Supp. 2d 306 (W.D.N.Y. 1998).

This federal case from the Western District of New York agreed that AA’s meetings were the “functional equivalent” of religious exercise, approving the Warner decision above. “The Warner Court scrutinized the A.A. literature and was persuaded by the fact that the Twelve Steps program, which is the fundamental statement of A.A. and which describe the required procedure to be followed by all attendees, is centered on a concept of a ‘higher power.’ In fact, all but five of the twelve steps refer specifically to ‘God,’ either directly (Steps 3, 5, 6 and 11) or as a ‘Power’ (Step 2), ‘Him’ (Step 7) or as a ‘spiritual awakening’ (Step 12). The Court also found that the A.A. focus on religious faith, spirituality and prayer was also demonstrated by its other writings, including the basic text of A.A. (commonly referred to as the ‘Big Book’) and the ‘Serenity Prayer’ used to start many of the meetings (all of which closed with the Lord’s Prayer).”

Although the court didn’t take an even more reasonable approach by asking, “Is this secular?”, which would have led it to the same conclusion, it satisfactorily resolved the matter by applying Warner. If it looks like god, acts like god, smells like god, and you find yourself praying to it, it’s religious, whatever you call it.

Ross v. Keelings, 2 F. Supp. 2d 810 (1998).

Also in 1998, this time decided by a federal district court in Virginia, an inmate successfully challenged his coerced assignment into a program that followed “spiritual and religious” principals as a violation of the Establishment Clause. Like others, the district court had no trouble concluding that the prison’s Therapeutic Community alcohol/drug abuse program involved religion. “‘Spiritual well-being’ is incorporated in the program, publications are utilized that refer to God, and the Serenity Prayer is recited. Id. Also, by the program director’s own admission, ‘religion is incorporated into the program so that an inmate can seek out and find his own spirituality.’ Id. P 14. Thus, the object of the program is to teach religion as a coping skill for life. While the program has the noble goal of preparing inmates to successfully reenter society, it impermissibly advances religion by coercing inmates to participate.”

The reasoning in this case speaks directly to arguments made at AA meetings and in the AA Big Book, namely, that they are not religious doctrines, only “spiritual” ones. This sleight-of-hand is specious; what is spirituality when contrasted with agnosticism/atheism, as done in the Big Book, if not religious? AA’s goal is to prepare members to face sobriety with divine help, and in case you miss that seminal point, meetings feature an opening prayer to “God,” and a closing one to the same invisible friend.

It is a great fraud to claim that spirituality is not religious when the mechanisms of that spirituality depend on prayer to god and on turning one’s will and life over to him–not her, it, or they. The Big Book admits as much in its chapter on We Agnostics, making the point that you may be atheist or agnostic when you start, but properly following the program will result in something that is not atheism or agnosticism. What’s left, besides theism?

Yates v. Cunningham, 70 F. Supp. 2d 47 (D.N.H. 1999).

This federal case from the District of New Hampshire provided no analysis, but simply said that even assuming coerced AA participation violated the Establishment Clause, other factors rendered the appeal moot. No case law was cited, but the court noted that there was evidence on the record showing that prior courts had ruled mandatory AA participation unconstitutional.

139 F.Supp.2d 1029 (2001), John BAUSCH, Plaintiff, v. Debra SUMIEC, Michael Sullivan and Jon Litscher, Defendants. United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin. April 10, 2001.

In this case a parolee protested coerced attendance at a rehab program that closely mimicked AA. Unlike some of the other cases, however, the defendant prison officials agreed that the program was “religious in nature,” not even attempting to pretend that all the dog and spiritual references were somehow non-religious. The court slapped down the coerced attendance as unconstitutional and ordered the prison to provide secular alternatives and, as importantly, to advise parolees that such alternatives existed at the time of assignment to the program.

For the purposes of this post, it’s not the ruling but rather the interesting administrative rulings that were made in Wisconsin after the Kerr decision, rulings in which prison officials explicitly admitted what even today AA members vehemently deny: that AA and its progeny are religious in nature. Here are two great quotes, from the Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections Office of Legal Counsel: “Agents cannot order offenders to attend alcohol or drug treatment at a 12 step program without offering a secular alternative. Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (1996). The United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that to force an offender to attend a treatment program with religious components violates the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. As a result, agents should write rules that order the offender to attend and complete out-patient (in-patient) alcohol/drug treatment without citing a specific program. The offender can attend a 12 step program if they choose, but a non-religious alternative must be offered.”

And: “The United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (1996), ruled that to order an offender to attend a treatment program with religious components violates the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. Agents cannot, as a condition of probation or parole, direct offenders to attend treatment or support programs that have a religious component. An agent cannot consider an offender in violation of supervision if the offender fails to attend a treatment or support program with a religious component. The court considered Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, to be a program with a religious component since the program refers to a higher power and to God as we understood him. Agents can order offenders to attend specific treatment or support programs as long as they are secular in nature. An offender may choose to attend a treatment program with religious components, but a non-religious alternative must be offered and agents must document this. For example: An offender is required to attend a support program. The agent directs the offender to attend a non-religious program but the offender requests to attend AA and the agent agrees. The agent must document that it was the offender’s choice to attend AA in order to consider the offender in violation of supervision should the offender fail to attend AA meetings.”

How is it that the administrative bodies responsible for implementing AA-type programs can admit that these programs are religious, but that AA cannot?

DeStefano v. Emergency Housing Group, Inc., 247 F.3d 397 (2d Cir. 2001).

This federal appellate decision from the 2nd Circuit involved a taxpayer challenge to the use of public funds for an AA program. Unlike the prisoner/parolee cases that examined the issue of coercion, this court examined the issue of indoctrination; that is, whether or not AA religiously indoctrinated participants.

Before it reached that issue, however, it reviewed controlling law and held unequivocally that AA is religious. “Our conclusions that the A.A. program is religious activity under our case law and that the district court’s decision was incomplete require us to assess the merits of DeStefano’s assertions under the First Amendment.”

In detail, the court reviewed the precedential rulings to support its conclusion. “The district court in the case before us rightly considered the A.A. program at the MACC to be a ‘religion’ for Establishment Clause purposes. It is too late in the day for the defendants to argue otherwise. See Warner, Griffin v. Coughlin, 88 N.Y.2d 674, 683, 649 N.Y.S.2d 903, 908, 673 N.E.2d 98 (1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1054, 117 S.Ct. 681, 136 L.Ed.2d 607 (1997) (holding that a review of A.A. materials ‘demonstrates beyond peradventure that doctrinally and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the A.A. fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization’); see also Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472, 479-480 (7th Cir. 1996) (reaching the same conclusion about a materially indistinguishable N.A. program); Alexander v. Schenk, 118 F.Supp.2d 298, 300 n. 1 (N.D.N.Y. 2000) (treating A.A. as a religion, following Warner and Griffin); Yates v. Cunningham, 70 F.Supp.2d 47, 49 (D.N.H. 1999) (same, citing, inter alia, Warner and Kerr); Warburton v. Underwood, 2 F.Supp.2d 306, 316-18 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (treating N.A. as a religion, citing, inter alia, Warner and Griffin).

“We find no basis on which to distinguish the content of the A.A. program at the MACC from that which was before us in Warner. Both programs use the same Twelve Step system in which participants pledge, among other things, to ‘turn [their] will and [their] lives over to the care of God as [they] understood him’; both programs distribute standard A.A. literature reflecting the need to take these and similarly religious ‘steps’; and both conduct meetings in which these beliefs are inculcated. See DeStefano, 67 F.Supp.2d at 278; Warner v. Orange County Dep’t of Prob., 870 F.Supp. 69, 70-71 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), remanded, 115 F.3d 1068 (2d Cir. 1997), reaff’d after remand, 173 F.3d 120 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 1003, 120 S.Ct. 495, 145 L.Ed.2d 382 (1999).

In re the Personal Restraint of Garcia, 106 Wash. App. 625 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001).

This appellate court decision from Washington continued the long march of decisions ruling the obvious, that AA is a religious program. “As such, contrary to the State’s claim, Garcia is in a position to demonstrate the alleged religious content of AA classes. A plain reading of the AA 12 steps shows that they are premised on the idea of a monotheistic God.22 Like Kerr, the record before us does not present a situation where the only religious note was struck by incidental references to God such as the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. Rather, the record shows that the AA classes at AHCC are permeated with religion because the classes revolve around the 12 step manifesto. The record also shows that participants recite the Lord’s Prayer and receive coins inscribed with the Serenity Prayer. As such, we conclude that the object of the classes is religious.”

This court’s conclusion strikes at some of the earlier cases, cited later in this post, deciding that AA passed constitutional muster because the principal object was inmate and parolee sobriety, not religious conversion or indoctrination. Those courts of course never explained how teaching a subject or promulgating a “manifesto” that commands obedience to god is less religion and more sobriety program. They never explained it because it’s untrue. When you sit down in church the primary purpose is to make you a better person and to strengthen your community, but the methods used are prayer, religious faith, religious texts, and every manner of devotion to My Invisible Friend.

The plain fact is that when any activity is infected with My Invisible Friend, it converts the activity to a religious one. Beer may only be 4% alcohol but it’s still an alcoholic beverage.

Cox v. Miller, 296 F.3d 89 (2d Cir. 2002)

This murder case from the 2nd Circuit is different from most of the other cases, which consider whether or not the state can coerce attendance in AA or its progeny. In Cox, the appellant claimed that confessions he made to fellow AA members were inadmissible evidence because the law protects communications between penitents and their spiritual advisers, and since the 2nd Circuit has ruled that AA was religious in nature, his confessions were necessarily protected and couldn’t be used to convict him in a gruesome murder case.

Although the Cox court agreed that AA was a religious organization for purposes of the Establishment Clause, it left open the possibility that some people in AA wouldn’t consider themselves members of the “AA religion” as they would Buddhism, Christianity, or Judaism.

“We have nonetheless held that when engaging in Establishment Clause analysis in certain settings we must treat A.A. the same as we would a group or organization that is a ‘religion’ in the popular sense because some of A.A.’s activities and modes of expression are religious in nature. As the Seventh Circuit observed, the inclusion of qualifiers in the tenets of A.A. (e.g., ‘God as we understood Him’) — which indicates that A.A. does not mandate one religious dogma — fails to remove it from the realm of religious activity in which the government may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, compel citizens to participate and which the government may not fund: … (omitted)

“We have treated A.A. the same as we would a traditional religion where the State compelled participation in A.A. despite its ‘intensely religious’ nature, Warner, 115 F.3d at 1075; and where the State allegedly funded ‘governmental indoctrination’ in A.A., DeStefano, 247 F.3d at 415 (emphasis in original).”

While it’s an odd suggestion, that something can be religious for purposes of the Constitution but somehow secular in the normal sense, it’s moot because legal definitions of religions are what matter when it comes to discrimination, coercion, and taxation. And as with the other cases, the Cox case makes clear that AA is religious.

Nusbaum v. Terrangi, 210 F. Supp. 2d 784 (E.D. Va. 2002).

In this federal case from the Eastern District of Virginia, a court again held that AA and its progeny are religious. “Applying the same standard as the court did in Ross, this court must conclude that the Therapeutic Community Program continues to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. ICCC has instituted a mandatory program which implicitly espouses religion. Inmates must participate in the Program or lose good conduct credits and be unable to earn good conduct credits. The Program teaches spirituality and encourages participants to turn their lives over to their ‘higher power.’ While spirituality and ‘higher power’ are defined in ‘The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery,’ in a secular manner, the overall program blurs this distinction. Pl.Ex. 1 at 26. Furthermore, the Johnson tape, which inmates are exposed to in a required part of the Program, advocates that the only viable definition of ‘higher power’ is God. Finally, God, which participants may interpret as ‘Good Ordered Direction,’ is, as defendants concede, inappropriate.

“The record has established that discussions regarding the importance of God and religion in conquering addictions is still a part of the Program. However, these discussions are led by other inmates rather than staff members. It may not be possible, nor even necessary from a First Amendment perspective, to remove all mention of God or religion in discussions related to coping skills and overcoming addictions. Nevertheless, it does not appear from the record that staff members have been intervening to negate any proselytizing.

“The Program at ICCC is mandatory. Inmates are required to either participate in the Program or serve a longer time in prison because of the loss of good conduct credits. Therefore, inmates are coerced to participate. While defendants have attempted to remove religion from the mandatory Program, it is clear they have not been entirely successful. As a result, plaintiffs have been coerced by the state to participate in a program that espouses religion. Thus, the Program, as it is currently constituted, continues to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

What I find interesting about many of these cases, including this one, are the ridiculous attempts of challenged officials to defend the obvious religiosity of AA and its progeny. In Nusbaum, officials actually tried to argue that when AA speaks of “God” it doesn’t mean a deity but is an acronym for “Good Ordered Direction.” How do people do this with a straight face? They can do it because in their minds the ends justify the religious means, and when examined by a critical court the explanations collapse into a mishmash of ludicrous soup.

Turner v. Hickman, 342 F. Supp. 2d 887 (E.D. Cal. 2004).

This federal case from the Eastern District of California, building on what was now close to fifteen years of jurisprudence and legal scholarship on the issue, completely eviscerated the claim that AA-based programs like NA were not religious. Most importantly, the court dismantled the cant offered up in The Big Book and at meetings that, because dog can be anything as you understand it, belief in dog is somehow not religious.

“Defendants argue that NA’s ‘God’ is nonsectarian, and that participants in NA are free to define ‘God’ in any way they wish; by way of example, at oral argument, defendants’ counsel suggested participants could identify ‘God’ as anything, a lake, a pond or even a doorknob. Cf. Def’ts’ Ex. Set 1 at 27:20-22 (Tr. of Dep. of Sol Irving, administrator for substance abuse program, explaining that ‘God is what that person believes is a higher power . . . [it] could be that doorknob over there . . .’).

“Although NA’s literature says it is ‘not a religious program,’ Def’ts’ Ex. Set 5 at 1516, NA unequivocally and wholeheartedly asserts that belief in “God” is a fundamental requirement of participation. Id. at 1510, 1513, 1514; Declaration of Charles Edward Turner (filed Mar. 5, 2004) (‘Turner Decl.’), Ex. B at 49-57. The NA program (like AA) prescribes the completion of twelve steps that cannot be completed without expression of a belief in ‘God, as we understand him.’ Def’ts’ Ex. Set 5 to Mot. Summ. J. at 1533; see also id. at 1541, 1546, 1552, 1553; cf. Def’ts’ Ex. Set 1 at 160-66 (chapter of AA handbook entitled ‘We Agnostics’). All of the NA meetings plaintiff attended began with either the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ or the ‘Serenity prayer.’ Turner Decl. at 2:16-17; see also Tr. of Pl.’s Dep. at 24:18-22.

“Both prayers presuppose belief in a monotheistic higher power. See School Dist. Of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 223, 83 S.Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d 844 (1963) (re Lord’s Prayer); Def’ts’ Ex. Set. 1 at 234 (Serenity Prayer).

“As disclosed by the record, the NA program plaintiff was required to attend is fundamentally religious, based as it is on the concept of a higher power to which participants must submit. See Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004) (defining ‘religion’ as a ‘system of faith and worship usu. involving belief in a supreme being and usu. containing a moral or ethical code; esp., such a system recognized and practiced by a particular church, sect, or denomination. . . .’). The suggestion that plaintiff could meet the parole board’s requirement of successful completion of NA by ‘learn[ing] those 12 steps, work[ing] those 12 steps,’ by expressing a belief in ‘God’ while reflecting on something completely at odds with all traditional notions of ‘God,’ simply is not creditable under the circumstances of this case. See Kerr, 95 F.3d at 480 (rejecting notion that ‘concept of God could include the non-religious idea of willpower within the individual,’ where case was not one in which religious references were merely ‘incidental’); Warner, 115 F.3d at 1076 (rejecting non-sectarian argument made by defendants because, inter alia, ‘the claim that non-sectarian religious exercise falls outside the First Amendment’s scrutiny has been repeatedly rejected by the Supreme Court’). See also Warburton, 2 F.Supp.2d at 318 (‘The emphasis placed on “God,” spirituality and faith in a “higher power” by twelve-step programs such as A.A. or N.A. clearly supports a determination that the underlying basis of these programs is religious . . .’); Cox v. Miller, 296 F.3d 89, 94, 108-09 n. 11 (2d Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1192, 123 S.Ct. 1273, 154 L.Ed.2d 1026 (2003) (in reviewing claim of cleric-congregant privilege in habeas case, summarizing history of AA and concluding that AA’s activities ‘must be treated as religious for purposes of [] Establishment Clause analysis’); but see Stafford v. Harrison, 766 F.Supp. 1014, 1016-17 (D.Kan. 1991) (pre-Warner and -Kerr decision commenting that ‘[w]hile the spiritual nature of [AA] cannot be denied, the court is not persuaded this program may properly be characterized as a religion. The central text of the program . . . refutes such a suggestion. . . . Further, the belief in a Supreme Being `cannot be sustained as a distinguishing characteristic of religion.’ (citations omitted)).

“Based on the above, the undersigned recommends that this court join the Second and Seventh Circuits in their determination that requiring participation in NA is an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment. See Warner, 115 F.3d at 1076-77; Kerr, 95 F.3d at 480.”

The Turner case attacks the typical sleight-of-hand used in AA meetings, where you are told that god can be “as you understand him,” as being anything but. The court points out the absurd suggestion of defendants that for purposes of AA god can be “a doorknob,” and notes that the totality of AA mandates belief in a monotheistic higher power that is thoroughly traditional. To the person attending an AA meeting, the AA god is therefore wholly familiar. We’ve met him before, we didn’t like him then and we don’t like him now. “God as you understand him” means “God as we understand him,” which is why AA members recite The Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, and the prayer that god remove “all our defects.”

University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender, and Class, 2006, Vol. 6, Issue 1.

The author of the article minces no words about AA’s religious content. “To begin, a strong argument exists that, contrary to the position of the A.A. proponents, A.A. is more than ‘somewhat religious.’ The famous ‘Twelve Steps’ of the A.A. program repeatedly mention ‘God.’ In fact, the third step involves a decision ‘to turn [one’s will and [one’s] life over to the care of God.’ In addition, the A.A. program, through its literature, expresses a viewpoint that repudiates atheism and agnosticism: ‘We, who have traveled this dubious path [i.e. – atheism or agnosticism], beg you to lay aside prejudice, even against organized religion. We have learned that whatever the human frailties of various faiths may be, those faiths have given purpose and direction to millions. People of faith have a logical idea of what life is all about.’ Because of these themes, the A.A. program is most properly characterized as religious exercise.”

In a detailed review of the current state of the law with regard to whether or not requiring inmates to attend AA violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the author concluded that despite a relaxing of the standard when it comes to state action that makes it easier for certain religions to practice in prison, the time-honored, strict preclusion of forcing people to worship against their will remains inviolate. AA’s indisputable religious content therefore becomes unconstitutional when anyone is coerced by the state to submit to it. “The Court has consistently recognized that the First Amendment protects both the rights of traditional believers and the rights of nonbelievers. Because A.A. contains a message that is antagonistic towards atheists and agnostics, it therefore contains a message that is antagonistic towards religious belief.”

This citation from AA, that religious people have a logical idea of what life is all about, leads to the obvious conclusion that atheists and agnostics are illogical and have no idea what life is about. Religion has given purpose and direction to millions, per AA, and the implication is that atheism and agnosticism leave you rudderless and confused. Such a powerful endorsement of religion in the context of constant prayers and submission to dog render AA’s orientation crystal clear.

Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2007).

The 9th Circuit finally weighed in on the issue of whether AA was primarily based on religion, and dispensed with the issue quickly. “Our record on the content of the AA/NA program here is limited to Inouye’s allegations that AA/NA is based in ‘a higher power.’ Nanamori does not, however, dispute that the program was substantially based in religion, and presents no evidence that the program differed from the usual AA/NA program, described by the Second Circuit in Warner as comprising ‘intensely religious events,’ 115 F.3d at 1075, and by the Seventh Circuit in Kerr as ‘fundamentally based on a religious concept of a Higher Power.’ As such, on this summary judgment record and given the lack of dispute between the parties in question, we have no trouble deciding that the third prong of Kerr’s Establishment Clause test has been met as well.”

Importantly, the 9th Circuit in this case set forth the long list of cases that have all concluded that yes, Virginia, there is a god in AA.

Armstrong v. Beauclair, Case No. CV06-49-S-EJL (D. Idaho Mar. 27, 2008).

This federal court case from the District of Idaho “granted declaratory relief to Plaintiff on his Establishment Clause claim, finding and concluding that Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights were violated when Defendants required him to attend a religiously-based prison rehabilitation program prior to considering his eligibility for parole after he informed them of his refusal to attend the program on religious grounds.” This was a case in which Armstrong had been coerced into AA meetings, which the court noted had already been declared “religious” by the 9th Circuit, which is controlling law in Idaho.

Of course it wouldn’t be law if there wasn’t some court somewhere that examined the same facts and reached the opposite conclusion, and we need look no farther than Kansas, California, and Illinois to find the only three published cases concluding that AA isn’t primarily religious. The California case has been superseded by the 9th Circuit’s decision in Inouye, cited above.

766 F. Supp. 1014 (1991), James STAFFORD, Plaintiff, v. Delane HARRISON, et al., Defendants, No. 88-3027-S, United States District Court, D. Kansas, June 28, 1991.

In 1991, a federal district court in Kansas ruled that AA was not religious because it did not define the “Higher Power” and left it to the participant as “he understood him,” quoting from AA’s Big Book and applying no law or analysis whatsoever, with the exception of  citing U.S. v. Seeger, the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case, and misapplying it to the facts at hand. This slap-dash opinion is not good law and was understandably not followed by subsequent courts considering the question.

855 F.Supp. 303 (1994), Edward F. O’CONNOR, Plaintiff, v. The STATE OF CALIFORNIA and Orange County, California, Defendants. No. SACV 92-817-GLT. United States District Court, C.D. California. June 8, 1994.

This California case also held that requiring participation in AA as part of a probationary scheme did not violate the Constitution, but its holding was not based on the claim that AA is secular. Rather, it argued that since the probationer had the option of a purely secular alcohol recovery program as well as AA, he could not claim that the state was coercing him to attend. Had there been no secular option, the court would likely have held differently. In any event, the court, while declining to call AA a religion, cited with approval the language in Warner attesting to the religious nature of the AA message. For the purposes of someone trying to decide whether or not AA attendance is going to be dog-heavy, the O’Connor decision confirms what I in fact found out: it is. In any event, this case has no precedential value after the 9th Circuit’s decision in Inouye v. Nanamori, cited above, which unequivocally found that AA was a religious program.

An Illinois case from 1988, (172 Ill. App.3d 498 (1988), 526 N.E.2d 894, PAUL B. YOULE, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. JIM EDGAR, Secretary of State, Defendant-Appellant; No. 4-88-0005; Illinois Appellate Court — Fourth District; Opinion filed July 14, 1988; Rehearing denied August 23, 1988).

This state appellate court reached the same result as the O’Connor case, but unlike O’Connor it dismissed the constitutional claim that AA was religious with no analysis of fact or law, and simply said that since the petitioner had other treatment programs available besides AA, his appeal was without merit. The bare bones nature of this case has made it an outlier and no court has cited it favorably. Moreover, the 7th Circuit, which includes Illinois, has precedential federal case law that finds to be AA religious-based programming.

Though these decisions go to great length to analyze the content, and in some cases the history of AA in order to resolve the question of whether it’s a religion-based program, the answer is a lot easier to reach when you look at the Big Book and the way it sets up AA’s concept of a higher power versus atheism/agnosticism. AA definitively tells members that atheism/agnosticism will be overcome by working the Twelve Steps, and that the spiritual awakening, whether sudden or gradual is inevitable.

I think it bears asking this question: What are atheism/agnosticism if not secular, and what is secular if not nonreligious? And if the AA program requires members to believe in a god that is not atheism or agnosticism, what is left but religion? Surely AA does not accept that there is such a thing as an atheist god, or that in seeking a higher power members are encouraged to choose god “as they understand him” in the form of a non-god god?

Semantics matter, and in this case AA’s Twelve Steps, conveniently numbered by Bill W. to correspond to the Twelve Apostles, require submission to god. The fact that you get to pick the god doesn’t make it less religious, although it does indicate how silly the whole notion is, namely, that there is some all-powerful deity THAT YOU JUST MAKE UP who can remove all your defects, get you permanently on the water wagon, and maybe even help you pick a winning lottery ticket. And why is it that this deity is only available through AA? Is he like a genie in a bottle and you have to go through a million old used lamps before you find the right one? Why does he prefer AA to, say, the First Baptist Church? And if he’s really a god, why is he subject to YOUR definition? Doesn’t that put the cart before the horse?

At least with the Hebrew and Christian and Islamic bibles they sit you down and say, “Look, motherfucker, this is god, he’s pissed and he will send you to hell unless you do exactly what he says. This is how he acts, the shit he has done and is capable of doing, he is very badass and perfect and he fucking made you out of dirt and we even have a bunch of ancient papers written by goatherds that he told them to write. These goatherd manuscripts are not suggestions they are commandments, and no, you don’t get to update them. So listen the fuck up.”

This kind of balderdash is a lot more convincing than the prison warden in the Turner v. Hickman case who, obviously having flunked Theology 101, avowed that under AA principles god can simply be “a doorknob.”

AA tries to sidestep the reality that it’s a religious organization by saying that all you have to do in order to recover is believe in dog as you understand him, and the only requirement is that it be a power higher than yourself. This is specious. All conceptions of dog are “as you understand him.” Some conceptions follow various writings, but all depend on the religious person to envision, understand, commune, believe in, and have faith in a spiritual power as the individual grasps it. No two people ever have exactly the same dog concept.

What’s interesting is that none of the court cases examined the philosophical underpinnings of AA, which were limned in the 1920’s and 1930’s and were profoundly influenced by hard-core religious bible beating in the form of the Oxford Group, and also by religious studies such as The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, writes that “the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.” All of the original six steps, later expanded to twelve to match the number of Jesus’s apostles, came directly from the Oxford Group and from its precepts of “1) Give in to God; 2) Listen to God’s direction; 3) Check guidance; 4) Restitution; 5) Sharing for witness (how one had changed) and for confession (what one had done).” And although the Oxford Group was non-denominational it was explicitly religious, promoted religious belief, conversion, and proselytization, and was explicitly Christian.

In addition to fun facts such as the Oxford Group’s declared intention in 1936 to win Adolph Hitler to their program, members were required to follow and “guidance” that leaders had received from My Invisible Friend, and forced to make a “surrender” to God on their knees in front of the group or another member, reciting the exact words to use being dictated to him, before being allowed to attend meetings. So the idea that AA has its roots in non-religious spirituality is untrue historically as well as in current practice.

The deep religiosity of AA is enshrined in its twelve steps to recovery and in its detailed interpretation of those steps. At its most basic level, AA exhorts people with Alcohol Use Disorder to “grow on spiritual lines.”

This sounds user-friendly, but it isn’t. What is spiritual growth except for an ever-increasing faith/belief/exercise of religion? AA’s second step requires users to say that they have come to believe that a Power (their capitalization) greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. This has a lot of problems, none addressed by AA. First I was told in the Big Book that we were afflicted with a disease, but now I learn that we are insane. Yet insanity has no clinical definition, rather, it is a colloquial term used by AA to convey “lack of proportion” or “the inability to think straight” or lacking “the ability to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge.” With regard to drinking, AA views insanity as having sound reasons not to drink, yet being compelled to drink by some parallel, “trivial” reason that overrides good sense.

In this colloquial, nonscientific sense, it may well make sense to appeal to religion. After all, if science is helpless, what’s left? The problem is that this “insanity” of being unable to utilize sound reasoning in the face of choices regarding alcohol is actually a demonstrable physiological outcome of alcohol abuse. If you search PubMed for “alcohol reduced white matter” you will come up with numerous reports and studies that document the significant reduction in white matter in the brains of alcoholics, especially the parts of the brain most critical to impulse control and learning new behaviors. This damage follows a dose-response pattern, that is, the more alcohol, the greater the damage. The pathways that support self-monitoring, planning, judgment, and reasoning are physically impacted by chronic misuse of alcohol, leading to the poor impulse control or “insanity” described by AA. Similarly, gray matter, also responsible for impulse control, memory, planning and information processing, suffers impairment from heavy drinking.

The point here is that what AA describes as insanity, researchers describe as physical assaults by excessive ethanol on physical neuronal structures. It’s not a matter of a “Power greater than ourselves restoring us to sanity,” it’s a matter of decreasing alcohol consumption so that the body can begin the process of healing the damage. Dog has nothing to do with it.

At this point you might think that I’ve dismissed AA’s effectiveness and its rationale. You’d be wrong.

After learning that membership in AA was going to require significant exposure to dog-ma, I took a look around and began listening carefully. What I found is that regardless of how much people attribute their sobriety to My Invisible Friend, the actions they take and discuss are entirely secular. Here are some quick examples:

  • Reducing the chance of a relapse by hanging out with other sober people.
  • Attending meetings that encourage you not to drink.
  • Avoiding places where drinking, or excessive drinking, is taking place.
  • Making new social networks.
  • Changing jobs, e.g. leaving food service for clothing retail.
  • Not keeping alcohol in the house.
  • Practice saying “no” to peer pressure.

Success in AA is largely a function of adaptation to shifting from choices to drink to choices to be sober. And this, in my opinion, is where dog comes in. As AA repeatedly reminds us, people with severe Alcohol Use Disorder and those who are on their way lack the ability to make those sober choices. It’s a vicious circle because, lacking the ability to choose not to drink, you drink, which increases the damage to your impulse control functions, which further reduces your ability to choose sobriety.

AA’s genius, and the place it has saved so many lives, is by creating a space, an overarching reason, for people to put on the brakes long enough to be abstinent, if only for a day. That space is faith, and whether you are religious, apatheist, or something in between, there can be no way out of the drinking spiral without hope that there is, in fact, a way out. AA allows, encourages, sometimes strong-arms you into using religion as the place to hang your hope, and for millions of people, that spark has ignited the conflagration that allows them to make daily choices not to drink such that lives are saved, families rehabilitated, health regained, and a certain, awful end converted into a mostly normal existence.

In my case, I have zero hope that My Invisible Friend will give me the key. But I do have faith that the guidance and wisdom and support of other people can help me quit drinking in conjunction with faith that I have the ability to change my own behavior. In that sense, my faith is no different from those on bent knee, tossing off hosannas and insisting that dog is going to remove every defect. They have hope that dog will prevail. I have hope that people, and I, will. Both of these attitudes, secular and religious, are based on faith, which at its root is the belief that something will happen for no reason other than you believe it.

Nor is hope unscientific. What researchers call “hope-thinking” has an effect on everything from the incidence of obesity to promoting mental health in the elderly to prenatal care. It’s no surprise that someone at an AA meeting who believes recovery is hopeless has dimmer prospects, if any, than someone who has hope, however faint, that recovery is possible.

However difficult it is to hear endless thanks to dog and to listen to the litany of epiphanies, revelations, dog-visions, submitting all to dog’s will, letting dog be in charge, giving dog the wheel, being a vessel for the will of dog, not to mention the underpinning philosophy that we’re all sinners a/k/a alcoholics, it’s also a challenge, and I mean that in the best sense, to immerse yourself in an alien culture when you realize that though it’s divergent from your own ideas, it has a fundamental effectiveness that can work for diverse people. When AA says “take what you need, leave the rest,” I take them at their word.

Which is another point … SoCal AA is legendarily accepting, and the emphasis on dog-ma is quite low compared to AA in other regions, where meetings can more resemble an assembly of bible beaters than a support group. All AA meetings are different, and there’s little orthodoxy if you take them seriously when they say that the twelve steps are only suggestions. It’s impossible to imagine a fundamentalist Southern Baptist or an ayatollah saying that the Ten Commandments are merely the Ten Suggestions.

Far more important than the constant admonishment to give oneself up to dog is the mission statement that my meeting opens with: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who are able to relate and share their experiences, strength, and hopes with each other in order to solve their common problem and help others recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

This is the real point if you are secular and still choose to participate. AA may be a religious organization, but for voluntary participants it can simply be a fellowship that has only one requirement, which requirement has nothing at all to do with religion. As long as you want to stop drinking, you’re welcome to attend, though you’re going to have to digest a whole lot of talk about My Invisible Friend.

Religion, religion, religion. I suppose for an apatheist like myself, the lady doth protest too much, methinks.


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