Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Religious Organization?: Meditations on Marginality
Analogies between the structure, activities, dynamics, and ideology of A.A. and those of religious organizations are apparent, but A.A. literature and A.A. members deny that A.A. is a religious organization. Based on a review of A.A. literature on A.A. and on participant observation research, we argue that both the religious features of A.A. and the denial of A.A.'s religious nature are integral to the structure and functioning of the organization. Claims that A.A. is a religion are based on the fact that it has historical roots in the Oxford movement, on the fact that it plays a meaning-providing role for its members, and on the fact that many A.A. members accept the existence of a "Higher Power." While A.A. denies it is a religion in order to realize better its therapeutic goals, its statement that it is "spiritual" but not "religious" is ambiguous. We argue that, as an identity change organization (ITO), A.A. encapsulates its members and creates an atmosphere in which members are likely to experience a sense of "institutionalized awe" for the power of the group. A.A. is properly classified as a quasi-religion in so far as a tension between sacred and secular is crucial to its functioning.
Sociological Analysis, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 41-51.