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."