Beliefnet
It involves fervent weekly meetings, discussion of Higher Powers, tearful personal confessions, fellowship events, exhortations to turn away from sin and toward the light, warnings of doom and punishment, opening and closing prayers, even group singing. Millions of Americans practice it. In fact, it dwarfs in size far better known faiths in America such as Judaism and Islam, to say nothing of many Christian denominations.

The Biggest Religion You Never Hear About

  • It's Not a Religion, It's a Gift
    By Thomas Lynch
  • It's Only One of Many Roads
    By Dan Wakefield
  • Court-ordered Religion
    By Charles Bufe
  • What is it? America's stealth religion--12-step recovery.

    Estimates place the number of Americans currently involved in some form of 12-step recovery at up to 15 million. According to a national survey conducted in 1991, about 4 percent of the population claimed to participate in 12-step meetings regularly. By comparison, America has about six million Jews and four to six million Muslims. And there are more 12-steppers than belong to the leading Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal denominations combined.

    The 12-step movement can remain a stealth religion because it has no official footprint. There are no 12-step churches on Main Street--though 12-steppers may be meeting in the basements of any church, synagogue, or mosque you drive past--and no cathedrals or visible priesthoods. Even more important, 12-steppers are supposed to remain anonymous, so people do not self-identify publicly as members. There's no sure clue for recognizing 12-steppers, the way, say, freckles and an Irish last name let you take a wild guess that a person was raised Catholic. Many members of the 12-step movement prefer that coworkers, friends, and even family not know they are part of a 12-step group. Even if they work as professionals in the substance-abuse field--and many do--they tend not to reveal their 12-step affiliation to outsiders.

    That's the "stealth" part--but why consider 12-step recovery a religion?

    Although there are now many different 12-step programs--from Narcotics Anonymous to Messies Anonymous--they are all modeled after the original 12-step group, Alcoholics Anonymous, still the largest and best known of the programs. A.A. was an offshoot of an early 20th-century evangelical Protestant movement called the Oxford Group Movement, and 12-step recovery is still essentially a conversion experience. Most simply, all 12-step concepts turn on the notion that a person suffering alcoholism or drug dependency or a similar burden does not have the strength to overcome the problem alone; he or she must call on a "Higher Power" for help. Five of the 12 Steps explicitly mention God.

    "In the original twelve steps written in 1935 by [A.A. cofounder] Bill Wilson, the `Higher Power' was clearly God," says Diana Guest, a San Diego psychotherapist who has written about 12-step programs and sometimes refers patients to them. "Today, the `Higher Power' might be God or Jesus, it might be the spiritual universe, it might simply be the joint power of the members of the 12-step group itself. But the concept that the individual must seek something larger than himself or herself in order to recover is absolutely essential."

    The Higher Power, in 12-step thinking, offers a salvation strength that allows a new life for those who truly seek it. In this, 12-step programs are very similar to mainstream faiths--just minus the houses of worship and the scripture. (There is also no professional clergy, but true-believing Program oldtimers are often referred to, more or less affectionately, as "bleeding deacons.")

    The Biggest Religion You Never Hear About

  • It's Not a Religion, It's a Gift
    By Thomas Lynch
  • It's Only One of Many Roads
    By Dan Wakefield
  • Court-ordered Religion
    By Charles Bufe
  • Like other religions, 12-steppism seeks to redeem troubled lives; requires penitence and confession; seeks to improve a person's ethics in dealing with others; encourages regular attendance at meetings that involve inspirational speeches, witnessing, and prayer; and has genuine and hypocritical adherents.

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