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Alcoholics Anonymous
America's State Religion?

•    •    •
The new front line in the
battle for separation

(a three-part series)



New York Times, June 12, 1996

N.Y. Court Lets Inmate
Refuse Alcohol Program

by James Barron

Copyright ©1996, The New York Times

(used under the provisions of The Fair Use Doctrine)

Ruling that Alcoholics Anonymous "engages in religious activity and religious proselytization," New York state's highest court declared Tuesday that state prison officials were wrong to penalize an inmate who stopped attending the organization's self-help meetings because he said he was an atheist or an agnostic.

The court ordered prison officials not to tie the man's eligibility for a family reunion program to his refusal to take part in the Alcoholics Anonymous sessions at Shawangunk state prison in Ulster County.

Alcohol and drug treatment programs are fixtures in the state's 69 prisons: 15,000 inmates, or two in nine, go through substance-abuse rehabilitation every year.

About a third of the participants had been sent to prison for drug convictions, but another 40 percent have other drug-related problems: they committed a burglary so they could fence the goods they stole for cash for drugs, for example. Or they failed the drug test inmates are given when they arrive.

But the high court, in a 5-2 ruling, said that state prison officials violated the constitutional rights of the inmate who brought the case, David Griffin, a former heroin addict who complained that he found the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings objectionable because of agnostic or atheistic views he has held since the 1950s.

An atheist denies the existence of God; an agnostic holds that the human mind cannot know whether there is a God. The court said Griffin had presented evidence that he had held both views at certain times.

"A fair reading of the fundamental AA doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious," the court said. "Adherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization."

The Pataki administration, which has lashed out at judges whom it considers soft on crime, immediately attacked the Court of Appeals. "The ruling defies common sense," state Attorney General Dennis Vacco said. "This ruling erodes the authority of corrections officials to set certain requirements in order for inmates to enjoy their prison perks -- in this case, conjugal visits by a convicted pimp with a history of drug abuse."

Vacco said he was considering whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alcoholics Anonymous would not say whether it saw itself as a religious organization. A spokeswoman for the group in Manhattan, who insisted that her name not be printed because she is also an AA member, said the group "has always refrained from commenting on outside issues."

"We do not want to take any stand that might deny an alcoholic AA as a resource," she said. "We're nonprofessionals who meet together to share our personal experience, strength and hope."

Other groups that seek to help people with alcohol and drug problems took issue with the ruling.

"I think it's a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water," said Abukarriem Shabazz, the president of the New York State Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Treatment Providers, which represents 130 member organizations and 20 coalitions.

"The bad situation was not the AA; that's the baby," he said. "The bath water was the punitiveness because the person did not participate. Change that. But you put people's sobriety and recovery at risk if you remove a significant, important support mechanism."

But Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the decision "constitutionally correct."

"It's important that the court is recognizing the fundamental principle that government can't force people to participate in religious activities that violate their own tenets," he said. "Also, there's a sense more and more that whoever goes to jail forfeits all constitutional rights. The court is saying you don't."

The program Griffin dropped out of was run by counselors who are full-time state employees, not, for example, volunteers from Alcoholics Anonymous, whose programs are often based at local churches.

But he stated that at a hearing with officials at Shawangunk, "both staff and inmate representatives acknowledged that the ASAT program at the facility was a religious program."

Noting that God is mentioned in five of the 12 steps that are the cornerstone of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, the Court of Appeals said the Appellate Division had wrongly applied "too narrow a concept of religion or religious activity." The high court said that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were "heavily laced with at least general religious content."

But the majority, in a decision written by Judge Howard A. Levine, said that it did not mean to denigrate the Alcoholics Anonymous approach to fighting addiction. Nor, the decision said, should the prison system scrap drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment programs if they are offered voluntarily.

Judges Joseph W. Bellacosa and Carmen B. Ciparick dissented from the ruling.

Richard Kohler, a former New York City corrections commissioner who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed that the case turned on First Amendment issues.

He said that other courts had concluded that corrections officials had to raise legitimate concerns if they infringed inmates' constitutional rights -- for example, citing security concerns as a reason for refusing to let inmates gather for prayer services Friday, when they are scheduled for a work detail.

"It's very difficult for the state to show there is a legitimate state interest in forcing someone into a rehab program when there's no evidence it works in the first place," he said.

New York Times


New York Times, June 12, 1996

RR Founder Responds

by Jack Trimpey

(edited by Cliff Walker)

New York Times
229 43rd St.
New York NY 10036

Dear Editor:

Forced participation in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is finally coming to public attention as a foremost national scandal ("Court Lets Inmate Refuse Alcohol Program" New York Times, June 12, 1996). Practically every publicly-funded institution now forces substance abusers into this intensely religious program by offering no other choice, by court mandate, by stipulation of withholding other services or benefits, or by direct intimidation by persuasive AA proselytizers. The drunk-driver precedent, in which offenders are forced into 12-step meetings or treatment programs as an alternative to imprisonment, has spread throughout our social system, resulting in widespread, systematic abuses of constitutional rights, not only the First Amendment, but the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Let us hope that the U.S. Supreme Court outlaws forced participation in AA everywhere.

Since your front-page story (The New York Times, Trish Hall, December 24, 1990) on Rational Recovery, tens of thousands have called us describing inappropriate or coerced 12-step participation. Consequently, we have initiated the Rational Recovery Political and Legal Action Network (RR-PLAN), an association of volunteers who work for choice in addiction care in their home communities. We hear from many inmates and parolees who are required to submit to unwanted 12-step indoctrinations as a condition of parole. Some are imprisoned solely because they have conscientiously objected to 12-step programs. A new and ugly twist on mandated AA is reserving certain organ transplant procedures for persons who are members of AA. Teaching disease, victimhood, personal powerlessness, group dependency, endless recovering, and tentative sobriety, the 12-step recovery group movement and its business arm, the addiction treatment industry, together form a most significant cause of mass addiction.

Since the Court of Appeals ruling last week, I have spoken to the New York Dept. of Corrections, Dept. of Parole, and Dept. of Substance Abuse Programs, in order to find out what effect this ruling will have on New Yorkers who are still being forced to attend AA meetings. I found no concern that people are forcefully inducted into AA programs. Richard Chady, of the Dept. of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, acknowledges the prevalence of AA in public programs, but believes that the existence of organizations such as Rational Recovery relieves the state from providing explicit alternatives in addition to their massively funded 12-step programs. Bill Williford of the Dept. of Corrections says that the decision does not affect other state programs, only the inmate involved in the suit, but that Department's legal counsel, Len Mancini, states the reverse, that the Department's entire substance abuse program has been ruled unconstitutional and must be changed to accommodate those who object to the content of the 12-step program. He adds, "I have trouble with all these murderers complaining that their rights are being violated." This kind of indifference to basic legal issues and abstinent outcomes is an example of how AA has come to monopolize our social institutions.

I have trouble that the 12-step program has gained immunity from the same standards and scrutiny that are applied to other forms of health care. Would FDA approve any new treatment resembling faith healing which produced consistently poor success rates, which was offered forcefully, and which often caused worsening of the original problem? Any serious criticism of the 12-step program invites the barbed reply, "AA bashing," followed by a challenge to the character or integrity of anyone who would look askance. AA is loved for its image far more than for its substance, and precious few are willing to openly criticize a program that presents itself in terms of the good, the true, the beautiful, and God. America is addicted to the disease concept and has fallen in love with AA with a love that is blind to research and with a love that forgives flagrant abuse and repeated, tragic failure.

The truth of the matter is that neither the 12 steps nor the recovery group movement have anything to do with whether one will continue to drink or use drugs. Although the 12-steps mention God five times, it should be even more alarming that the word abstinence is not mentioned once, that not a clue is given as to how one might go about quitting an addiction, and that addiction is regarded as a symptom of an ineffable disease rather than the ultimate self-indulgence it is. Services called addiction treatment are actually exercises that address peripheral problems, never the addiction itself. Addiction treatment is a very expensive introduction to the nonprofit fellowship of AA, where having a drink is called having a relapse, and planned abstinence is a symptom of addictive disease. Although it is said that no one makes any money in AA, billions of tax dollars are channeled into the accounts of employees of the addiction treatment industry, most of whom are active members of AA.

For America to have only one approach for all of its people is a guarantee of failure for the majority, which is currently the case. Even when chosen, however, the 12-step program is an ineffective approach that actively prevents people from taking personal responsibility to summarily quit an addiction for good. Instead, it diverts participants into a lifelong devotion to AA, spiritual searching, and program proselytizing. By AA's own accounting, 50% of participants drop out within thirty days, 95% within a year. Of those who continue, few, less than half, remain sober for five years.

The idea that addicted people cannot or should not be expected by themselves or others to independently quit the use of alcohol and drugs is an illusion created by the disease concept of addiction, very often supported by the credibility of the helping professions and at taxpayer expense. It is shocking that planned abstinence is disregarded as a viable alternative for addiction recovery, when it is very well known that addicted people recover most readily and most often by simply quitting independently for personal reasons. From 50% to 70% of all who recover do so on their own. It is alarming that America has turned over one of her worst domestic problems to a program that produces only single-digit abstinence rates, and violates Constitutional freedoms in the process.

Rational Recovery Self-Help Network is a worldwide association of volunteers who teach people how to quit an addiction, no questions asked. Our volunteers know something that is more important than all of the research that has ever been done on the subject of addiction: how to quit and how to teach that ability to others. Our self-help groups, free of charge, are quite different from recovery groups in that attendance is brief (two to six meetings recommended), and we offer no solutions to life's many problems. Religious people in particular, but also the not-so-religious, appreciate that RR offers no religion, psychological theory, or philosophy to live by, [nor does it] contradict anyone's values or personal beliefs. People who want to quit enough to turn out for a recovery group meeting are already 90% recovered, needing only some encouragement that they are almost there, and some solid information on how to recognize the specific thoughts and feelings that support any future use of alcohol or drugs.

We know that anyone can immediately quit a substance addiction for good using a method called Addictive Voice Recognition Technique (AVRT), an approach based on the experience of formerly addicted, self-recovered people. AVRT can be learned at RR meetings, at Rational Recovery Centers in the U.S. and Canada, the World Wide Web site below, or by reading the newest RR book, Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance Addiction (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming, September, 1996). Research on RR's effectiveness done by New York University Medical School in 1992 found that 74% who attended meetings for four months were abstinent, with no statistical difference between alcohol and hard drug users.

Quitting an addiction is a natural, human ability, easily learned with encouragement and clear information. When the American addiction treatment tragedy ends, we may finally enter a post-treatment era when addicted people may simply quit their addictions on their own as an alternative to suffering the natural consequences of their indulgences.

Jack Trimpey, LCSW
Founder, Rational Recovery
Box 800, Lotus CA 95651
(800) 303-CURE
email: rr@rational.org


Alcoholics Anonymous:
A Religion In Denial

by Cliff Walker

Occasionally, I'll go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting because I have a few friends there; a meeting is a good excuse to see them. Meetings are fun (from my perspective) and sometimes I even learn a thing or two. Mostly, they just provoke thought.

At one meeting, I voiced my objections to the religious elements in AA. An AA loyalist stood up and warned the newcomers: "Don't believe those that say AA is religious!"

Had I not recently learned the skill of self-control, I would have jumped up and said something like: "Don't take my word for it: listen to AA co-founder 'Doctor Bob' Smith -- right out of the hallowed AA Big Book":


"If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you." (page 181)


Meanwhile, the Big Book admits that its purpose for teaching people that they are powerless is to induce religious conversion experiences, variously called a "psychic rearrangement" or "vital spiritual experiences." This is the only reason anyone teaches the doctrine of powerlessness in AA. Without a religious conversion, the idea that one is powerless is detrimental to one's quest for recovery.

In order to make AA appear more benign to the public, AA members differentiate between the words religious and spiritual. This dance with semantics implies that religion is stuffy, hierarchical, or phony, whereas spirituality is spontaneous, personal, honest, and genuine. The Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary does not support these shades of meaning. To a nonbeliever, however, religion and spirituality are the same thing; we really don't want any part of it -- if we can help it.

The Big Book dedicates its entire fourth chapter ("We Agnostics") to ridiculing the beliefs of freethinkers, atheists, humanists, agnostics, and other nonreligious people. Such thinking is not welcome in AA.

Of course, nonbelievers won't be thrown out of an AA meeting, but the Big Book is forceful in persuading us to change our religious beliefs as part of a successful program. The book forecasts certain doom to those who reject its teachings, giving victims the following either-or ultimatum:


"To one who feels he is an atheist or agnostic such an experience seems impossible, but to continue as he is means disaster ... To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face." (page 44)


Using the ultimate form of coercion, Alcoholics Anonymous says you have two options: religion or death:


"But after a while we had to face the fact that we must find a spiritual basis of life -- or else. Perhaps it is going to be that way with you. But cheer up, something like half of us thought we were atheists or agnostics." (page 44)


Note that atheism and agnosticism are forms of dishonesty here -- delusions (we thought we were atheists). AA is not ashamed to paint agnostics (and other nonbelievers) as being dishonest with themselves, implying that they "really do" believe -- deep down inside:


"But [the newcomer's] face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored. We know how he feels. We have shared his honest doubt and prejudice. Some of us have been violently anti-religious." (page 45)


"...as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results..." (page 46)


"Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you..." (page 47)


And don't forget that AA has a captive audience of impaired people:


"[We] often found ourselves handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice. Many of us have been so touchy that even casual reference to spiritual things make us bristle with antagonism. This sort of thinking had to be abandoned.... Faced with alcoholic destruction, we soon became ... open minded on spiritual matters. ... In this respect alcohol was a great persuader. It finally beat us into a state of reasonableness." (pages 47-8)


Most of AA's allies will admit that AA does have its "religious trappings" or that some components of the AA program are spiritual in nature; however, the Big Book places the religious conversion experience as Priority Number One. The Big Book admits that recovery from addiction is secondary to religious conversion:


"Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power? Well, that's exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.... [That] means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics." (page 45)


No kidding! The word difficulty is an understatement. AA admits that recovery from alcoholism plays second-fiddle to getting religion -- er, spirituality. Frankly, hundreds of thousands of us have not liked the "God part."

But the public at large continues to assume that the best advice is to suggest going to AA. More recently, those who are respectful of cultural diversity have begun to tell people simply to "get some help." It no longer occurs to the average American to simply say: "Why don't you stop drinking?"

This is my goal and the reason I support Rational Recovery: I have watched many people quit on their own -- without help. The primary message of RR is self-help. RR teaches self-help as opposed to professional help and self-recovery as opposed to support groups.

But the authorities continue to mandate help other than self-recovery to thousands across America. To this day, self-recovery is not an option. This leads me to wonder if the authorities have abstinence as a goal, rather than simply herding them into "the system."

The U.S. Supreme Court may soon end this travesty. Let's hope!

Cliff Walker

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