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 stealth religion of 12-steppism may have become increasingly significant in the United States for two reasons. First, as religious formality has relaxed, people may have become more willing to have faith-related experiences wherever they may find them. The nondenominational wave really is for real. Millions of Americans are seeking God, or some kind of higher power, in circumstances that have nothing to do with formal denominational structures--often abandoning their birth religions in the process.
For many uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the official faiths of their upbringings, 12-step faith may provide the sense of caring, moral order, spirituality, and community that religion customarily provides, without the specific requirements of doctrine. It's no coincidence that the so-called "Next Church" movement, which offers a generic nondenominational Christianity with many modern touches but almost no theology, often invokes 12-step principles and almost always offers an array of recovery and counseling programs in conjunction with services. This phenomenon may be as significant as the populist "holiness movement" that swept the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, scorning all official denominations.
Secondly, the disorders that people in 12-step recovery are recovering from--alcoholism, addictions to drugs or sex or gambling or food--tend to be stigmatized as sins by organized religions. Twelve-step programs, following the medical model of alcoholism, view them as diseases. "You're not a bad person getting better; you're a sick person getting well," as an A.A. slogan puts it. Twelve-step programs hold out the balm of understanding and the promise of lack of judgment from others who have "been there."
Probably you can name Episcopalians, Jews, and Muslims whom you personally know. Try to make a mental count. Then realize the chances are that you know more 12-steppers than that, since the nation has more 12-step adherents than Episcopalians, Jews, and Muslims combined. You just don't know who they are, because they belong to America's stealth religion.