Every now and then, attorneys at Americans United for Separation of Church and State will receive a call or an email from a person who has been ordered by a court to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and doesn't want to go because of its religious nature.
When this happens, AA's defenders usually assert that the organization isn't really all that religious and that the "power greater than ourselves" referred to in its famous twelve-step program doesn't have to be God.
A look at the entire twelve steps quickly debunks that notion. In fact, AA is replete with religiosity. Seven of the steps contain references to God, spirituality, or prayer. Step five, for example, calls on alcoholics to admit "to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs," while step six admonishes alcoholics to be "ready to have God remove all these defects of character." Step eleven, meanwhile, calls for "prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out."
This isn't surprising. Remember, the twelve steps were created in 1935 when American society was much more religious. The steps were also fashioned by a man who had undergone a dramatic religious conversion; they reflect his experience and his belief that recovery must be anchored in faith.
What's surprising is that AA's program continues to be the leading alcohol recovery technique for millions of people. Remarkably, an approach rooted in a kind of religious self-help program and devised eighty years ago when the science of addiction was largely unknown, is still considered the gold standard by many people who grapple with addiction or who work in the recovery industry.
I know people who have been helped by AA, and many individuals in recovery have told impressive stories of how they were able to overcome addiction thanks to the twelve-step model. But I also know people who fell off the wagon while in AA. We must keep in mind that anecdotes, no matter how powerful, are not data.
So what does the actual data say about AA? What's available indicates that the approach is not particularly effective. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Gabrielle Glaser wrote that one researcher puts AA's success rate between 5 to 8 percent. Glaser calls AA a treatment approach that "took root before other options existed, inscribing itself on the national consciousness and crowding out dozens...