If I’m ordered to go to AA, can I get a religious exemption?

Maybe, but there are some definite prerequisites. Service members are sometimes referred to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). This can be problematic as the 12 steps revolve around the idea of a higher power. This higher power often refers to god, and reference to earlier foundational documents show a strong bias toward Christianity. We are encouraged that MAAF members and other atheists have been successful with AA. In addition, there are statements from AA officially recognizing the opportunity for a secular interpretation of the religious statements. We do want to make sure that those who need help have a comfortable and welcoming environment.

MAAF will not second-guess the directive to seek substance abuse counseling or support. We have had requests that are clearly veiled substitutes attempts to avoid treatment or deny that the person has a problem. We can help with counseling alternatives, but cannot help eliminate the counseling. With that in mind, please see below.

First, seek the option of a secular program. MAAF recommends to alternative programs:

  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is an alternative recovery method for those alcoholics or drug addicts who are uncomfortable with the spiritual content of widely available 12-Step programs. SOS takes a reasonable, secular approach to recovery and maintains that sobriety is a separate issue from religion or spirituality. [more locations to follow]
  • SMART Recovery (Self-Management And Recovery Training) is an international non-profit organization that offers free, self-empowering, science-based mutual help groups for abstaining from any substance or activity addiction. The Meetings tab provides references to online, voice, and in-person meetings as well as online chat and forums.

If non-AA alternatives are not available or if a legal mandate has specified an AA-based program, we recommend giving the program a try. Go to the AA meeting or AA-based treatment program, be open about being atheist, and follow the secular intent of the program. The program has an undercurrent requiring surrender to a “higher power.” For this portion, consider choosing one of several proxies for a higher power:

  • The Group: AA itself and your AA group in particular should very much be your “higher power.” It is something outside yourself with expertise and caring that you can lean on in times of trouble.
  • An Ideal: Your Ideal Self or an Ideal Hero that you look up to can give you a goal to strive for. AA will encourage an external locus of control and an external source of strength, so you may need to explain this Ideal Self or Ideal Hero is outside rather than within yourself, but it may be a valid inspiration for personal development.
  • A Symbol: Your military rank or uniform, a diploma or degree, or a meaningful memento from family. Anything that you have that inspires you to be greater may provide solace and support just as the idea of a god may support some others
  • A Fake: You might pick the nearest chair or Harry Potter (HP – higher power), or a lightbulb or something as powerless as god is to you. This may work if the idea of any “higher power” is too contradictory to your world view. It would most likely depend on your dedication to other portions of the program.

If you go to the meeting and participate and pick a higher power of your choosing and then if you are forced to choose a religious or Christian higher power, we can help. If an atheist-friendly group with sufficient services is unavailable within a reasonable distance and local AA programs have proven to be religious in nature, then we can help “fix” your group or seek alternate judgment against you (vis AA). At this point, you will have shown that you are committed to recovery, but that you need help to find a supportive program.