The question of whether or not Alcoholics Anonymous is a cult gets asked a lot. And answered a lot as well. I used to ask the question myself, especially after attending a few meetings years ago. The weird incantations and rituals at AA meetings made me feel like an outsider, and whenever I spoke to someone who’d been going to meetings for a while, I felt like they knew some secret code that they weren’t sharing with me or something. Something odd you’ll notice about the question “Is AA a cult” is that it usually is answered in the affirmative, with numerous pseudo-academic footnotes. You’ll also notice that the person asking and answering the question is often either a person who quit drinking without AA, or a person who thought they might have a drinking problem and – right or wrong – decided they didn’t. And then of course there’s the “God thing”, which I’ll address a little further on. The fact is that someone can really only come to the conclusion that AA is a cult by either being ignorant of its “organizational hierarchy”, or by simply deciding that that it’s “evil” because they don’t understand it. A person who doesn’t have an addiction problem will neither be concerned with, nor, frankly, have the ability to understand what’s going on within AA. And the millions of people who have benefitted from it certainly don’t think it’s a cult. The simple and readily observable fact is that AA is NOT a cult, and can only be identified as such due to resentful personal bias or ignorance, which are almost always the reason people label something a cult, as outlined in this explanation at ReligiousTolerance.org. So let’s take a look at a typical “cult checklist”, in this case, that of noted sociologist Eileen Barker:
1. A movement that separates itself from society, either geographically or socially
2. Adherents who become increasingly dependent on the movement for their view on reality
3. Important decisions in the lives of the adherents are made by others
4. Making sharp distinctions between us and them, divine and Satanic, good and evil, etc. that are not open for discussion
5. Leaders who claim divine authority for their deeds and for their orders to their followers
6. Leaders and movements who are unequivocally focused on achieving a certain goal
To me, this sounds more like a description of a member of one of today’s polarized American political parties than anything, but let’s address it in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m just going to present the list again, but with comments.
1. A movement that separates itself from society, either geographically or socially.
AA does neither. You can find open meetings all over the world, and as AA literature makes clear, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”.
2. Adherents who become increasingly dependent on the movement for their view on reality.
This is where a lot of misunderstanding probably occurs. AA in fact encourages self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, but most active drunks and addicts have neither, so AA encourages a support network through sponsorship and regular meetings.
3. Important decisions in the lives of the adherents are made by others.
This is true in the early stages, but only to the extent that a “member” surrenders themselves to such decisions. In many cases, an addict or drunk could frankly do no better than to listen to the advice of those who’ve found some solid ground and for no reason other than their rediscovered compassion want to help others do the same.
4. Making sharp distinctions between us and them, divine and Satanic, good and evil, etc. that are not open for discussion.
This is simply not an aspect of AA. In fact one of the key tenets of AA is to not judge others by one’s own framework, but rather to ask oneself what one’s responsibility in a situation is. Discussion is the cornerstone of AA, it’s what meetings are all about, and although there are meetings where certain kinds of discussion will be squelched, it is usually for the assumed benefit of the group discussion; for example, when someone tries to hijack a meeting as a “personal therapy session”.
5. Leaders who claim divine authority for their deeds and for their orders to their followers.
AA has no leaders or hierarchy that controls individual meetings. Members of AA will often end up idolizing the founders or the people in their “sponsorship genealogy”, but this is nowhere outlined as a basic principle in the twelve steps.
6. Leaders and movements who are unequivocally focused on achieving a certain goal.
Well, this one hits the nail on the head. It seems like everyone you talk to in AA has the mindlessly obsessive goal of…STAYING SOBER.
AA’s Supreme Leader and Corporate Headquarters
So this is where people who know little about AA get confused. The fact that there is a central organization called the “General Service Office” suggests that there is some kind of top-down hierarchy, but nothing could be farther from the truth. AA operates with an inverted pyramid style of governance that key founder Bill Wilson referred to as “benign anarchy”. Anybody could start a meeting, anywhere, at any time, and pretty much structure it however they wanted, as long as they stuck to the most basic principles. They could in fact do so even if they DIDN’T adhere to those principles – nobody could stop them – but that would be a pretty absurd pursuit. The General Service Office exists primarily to print AA literature, respond to public inquiries, and organize conferences. It’s right there in the basic principles that AA “is not aligned with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes“. What seems to upset most people about AA is the simple fact that it doesn’t fit their rigid perceptions of life, culture, and organization. AA does no marketing, recruiting, or lobbying. You can’t become the leader of a group and keep power, and no-one can tell you when to come and go. Trust me, I’ve watched them come and go in my three years of recovery, and no-one was chasing them down as they went.
The God Thing & The Judge
I think it’s pretty safe to say the “God thing” and court sentencing are two of the biggest contributors to the perception of AA as a cult. It’s unfortunate that the nation’s traffic courts often sentence repeat drunk-driving offenders to AA; although it may benefit a few of them, it’s completely antithetical to the principles of AA, and the enforcement of attendance at AA meetings is completely at the discretion of the legal system. AA has no interest in “gaining members” this way, and if AA regulars collectively DID have an issue with the practice, AA’s own principles would prevent barring such people from attending anyway. And the “God thing” I keep referring to? This is really where AA has some perception problems. It took me years to realize that addiction was in fact not a behavioral problem, but a spiritual problem, and I really believe a real addict has little hope of recovery without grasping this. But that doesn’t mean I robotically accept the usage of the term “God” and all the obviously Christian references in the AA oeuvre. I think it prevents a lot of people from discovering the benefits of AA, and makes the 12-step approach an easy mark for criticism.
But Does AA Work?
That’s often at the crux of the criticism. Does it “work”? My answer would be no. You do. But the principles of AA certainly aren’t WRONG, and do a lot more to enhance people’s lives, and nothing to harm them. And for me, they were the building blocks of continued sobriety and happiness that seems to grow continually. In an upcoming piece I’ll address why AA didn’t work for me for years, and why it suddenly did. The reason was shockingly simple. For now, I’m going to go do one of the many things I never had time to do when I spent all my time drinking. And I’ll quietly express thanks, something I learned how to do again with AA. Maybe I’ll pick up a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?. It looks interesting.