Words interest me, and I like them. The word cult embodies many of the elements of AA that draw criticism of AA. Some of the definition applies to AA. It involves
- a system with rites and ceremonies
- great veneration of a person or ideal
- a group bound together by veneration of the same person or ideal
A cult, in this sense, is neither good nor bad, and the word cult is actually a neutral word.
However, the common, popular first meaning of the word cult does not apply to AA. It is not a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader. Examples of these cults include The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidian, and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. These are extreme in their negativity.
Setting out to prove that AA is not a cult is a conundrum. Each argument, pro or con, can be refuted by a fact that proves the point. Ultimately, people who disagree with AA are said by those within AA to be in denial. They are cautioned that if they leave AA, they are likely to drink, and to end up then in jail, an institution, or cemetery. They are cautioned that should they find a part of the program not to their liking, the “spiritual” part for instance, or the inventory, they cannot leave that part out indefinitely, or they will drink, and so die.They are urged to learn all of AA’s ways as quickly as possible and to adhere to them religiously. They are warned that they probably have to change the people, places and things of their drinking lives, stay away from friends, maybe even family members.
Here’s the gist of my understanding of important ways in which AA differs from cults. I believe that Bill W and those who now follow him closely are very careful to say that AA is NOT the only way people find sobriety. The dire warning to follow or die comes when all else has failed. People decide every day to stop drinking to excess or to stop drinking completely, and many of them are successful at moderation or abstinence with no help, or with the help of other venues that are not AA. Anything that I have seen attributed to the founder directly says we of AA should welcome all help for struggling alcoholics and cooperate with and assist those doctors, psychologists, religious people and others who seek to solve the problem of alcoholism.
From As Bill Sees It:
We can be grateful for every agency or method that tries to solve the problem of alcoholism–whether of medicine, religion, education, or research. We can be open-minded toward all such efforts and we can be sympathetic when the ill-advised ones fail. We can remember that A.A. itself ran for years on “trial and error.” As individuals, we can and should work with those that promise success–even a little success.
Second, AA does NOT encourage members to leave society, but rather encourages them to become contributing members of it. I recently read a transcript of a talk Bill W gave before congress in which he said that AA is more than a producer of sobriety, it is a returner of citizens (although he didn’t phrase it as awkwardly as that). People who were consumers, only taking from society, become producers. Members are urged to join and contribute to their various religious groups, to take care of their families and to act responsibly.
There are some lesser points that show to me that AA is not a cult in the negative sense. AA does not take financial control of a person, and is actually free to members, and discourages large donations made by individuals. There is not a charismatic leader. The texts written by Bill W and the first members are venerated and studied, but they are discussed and debated. Oldtimers have only the authority that those who know them give them. I’ve been going to meetings for 30 years, and I cannot name for you one living important AA big shot. All the groups I have been close to all over the US mandate a rotation of “leadership,” and at many meetings you will hear it stated, directly from the traditions, that these leaders “are but trusted servants, they do not govern.”
AA does not maintain tight control of the AA name. My partner and I and some others began a new group with a format that was similar to what I grew up with, and that is different than that of where I now live. No AA police checked us out. The intergroup put us right into the meeting schedule. We are an AA group because we call ourselves that, and because we try to abide by the traditions.
There is no sexual component of AA, and members are actually encouraged to refrain from “dating” for a year when they start the program. Being a fellowship of human beings, I’m sure that every day some member of AA takes unfair advantage of some vulnerable newcomer. I’ve seen it happen, but really not that often. More often than not, it is two newcomers who are beginning a relationship too soon.
AA does not control the information that members receive from books or TV or the internet or from other people. It does not shun people who fall away. The fact that it actually welcomes such people back probably saved my life.
AA does tell alcoholics that they have no personal power. It does not then excuse every sin they may have committed because they are “powerless” and suffer from a “disease.” Rather it has a systematic way of making sure, in as much as it is possible, that people apologize and make restitution for the past bad things they have done. It has a systematic way of encouraging us to review our conduct daily and several times a day, and to use our power to perform right actions.
There is a phrase in the literature that stays with me and gives me chills. It says something like, “Perhaps your man needs more convincing.” This is regard to someone an AA member tries to help by bringing that person into AA. Sometimes we just can’t, and the person may need to do further drinking. I personally hate this truism, because I know that so many times, the person doesn’t make it.
AA has successfully brainwashed me, and I am so grateful. My brain needed desperately to be washed. The way I see it, AA has packaged in a form I can understand and use the basic philosophies of human existence, and it has given me unlimited human resources to help me in real time with my particular dilemmas. The concepts of having a higher power, confession, restitution, prayer and self survey are not new and they weren’t invented by AA. I don’t doubt that countless people through the ages have used these concepts without the fellowship to recover successfully from alcoholism.
Still, when I consider a newcomer, brand new to the rooms of AA, my best advice and my greatest hope for that person is that he or she jump in, stay close, and recover. I’ve seen it go the other way too many times. I couldn’t recover on my own, even after I had studied to some degree the principles of AA. So many others also cannot.
The Twelve Steps are a cultural phenomenon in that they are widely recognizable as being good and doable. Many other recovery groups have used the steps and the support group format to help people recover from all kinds of things. I hope that for most people, hearing that a loved one has joined AA is cause for celebration and real hope. In speaking completely for myself, I can say with certainty that all the good I have done over the past 24 years is a direct result of AA. Had I lived without it, I would have been a pathetic taker, institutionalized and disabled in one way or another.
Along with the well known principles that the steps delineate, there is for many alcoholics the necessary experience of the deflation that another alcoholic can give. That is where they reveal to you the truth that you are hopeless. I guess that for some very few, very unlucky individuals, they are told this and it’s not actually true. It was true for me, though, and had someone not revealed it to me, I would not have survived.
Further opinion can be found here