Is AA a Cult?

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

and here.

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10 thoughts on “Is AA a Cult?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Lydia – I too have heard the word “cult” bandied about, usually by resentful newbies, and always had a hard time coming up with a response. I can’t help but think of the 9th tradition where the 12&12 talks about alcoholics signing their own death warrant when they refuse to follow simple instructions. Thank you for this post!

  2. The question, Is AA a cult?, is immaterial. The question is for people to know and understand their options. And, to choose amoung them. Life is mortal. Everyone has a death warrant issued to them at birth. The point is to get shut of the problem. And, then, live your life.
    Simply: Define the problem; define the solution; carry out the solution.
    It is not, and never has been, about carrying out the abstraction of 12 step.

  3. H – Thank you for your comment, but I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. The only way for me to define the problem, define the solution, and carry out the solution was to carry out the 12 steps. Not sure what you mean by the “abstraction.” I’ve seen many people fail to recognize their problem of alcoholism, fail to find a reasonable solution, and fail to carry out any kind of positive anything. Some of us need the steps, and some of us even want them.

    • That means that a person defines their problem. Finds a solution. Whatever that solution may be. For one person, it may be AA. For another person, something else. Then, uses that solution to solve their problem. Whether AA is a cult or not, makes little difference.

  4. As a young woman, 19 yrs old, I was terrified of the strong AA i found in my area – many members of the strongest groups encouraged me to get rid of everything i was thinking about life and change. I didn’t like it but i also couldn’t keep going on the way i was. When i was young i was just a party girl, drinking underage at older kids parties and getting lots of attention from the boys. After high school i started using heroin, because it was easier to hide than alcohol. in no time i was regularly hanging out with criminals and drug users in some of the scariest places i had ever been to.

    When the group i went to encouraged me to get rid of my drug dealing boyfriend, and keep distance from my raging alcoholic mother until i was strong enough to stand on my own two feet i felt like i was being tricked into some sort of cult. even though i was scared, i had no other options so i followed their suggestions and in a short time i felt better about myself than i had in years. my experience was that if i wanted to get different results in my life, i needed to take different actions, things that seemed insane at the time. in the end, it worked out and i have been a sober active member of AA since 2005 thanks to aa’s allegedly “cultish” ways.

  5. Is AA a cult? This is something that troubled me when I first came into Alcoholics Anonymous. I was worried. I’d been a part of fundamentalist Christendom and then became a militant atheist and found the whole thing a bit unnerving.

    But my life was TRASHED. I am bipolar and have my chemical imbalance treated, but that doesn’t stop me from drinking…

    I ‘kept coming back’. In coming back I stumbled upon many atheists who had maintained sobriety for some 20+ years. No one in AA really gave a sh– about what the person did believe or didn’t believe.

    My sponsors didn’t control me – they suggested things, and if I didn’t call them, they didn’t bug me or try to proselytize me, they just let me do whatever i wanted. at the same time, when I DID relapse, they loved me without judgment, and many of them said, ‘listen. if you need to go out a drink some more, drink some more. whenever you’re ready. who knows what your path is.’

    The bottom line is, even if it IS a cult, it’s helped me immensely. The spiritual principles are a beautiful thing that totally remove – i mean EXPEL – the desire to drink. I don’t know WHY it works the way it does, but if someone is willing, it seems to work.

    At the same time, when others can get sober by their own means, or stop on their own power, as it says in the book, “Our hats are off to them!” We don’t care. In fact, we’re happy for them. AA is not the only way, and no one really claims that – or at least the traditions don’t assume that.

    But if someone can’t drink and wants to stop and decides to pursue AA, we try to help them. If they don’t WANT to pursue it, we kinda leave them alone…doing the opposite of proselytizing. We’re not out in the world trying to make AA converts. Instead, we stay hushed about it unless someone ASKS.

    Really, though, I shouldn’t be defending it because that goes against the principles of the program anyway. It’s really none of my business and if others find another means to recovery then that is WONDERFUL.

    I only know from my own experience the program encourages participation in the world, be it academic, creative, social, etc. And values the intellect…provided we place humility first, which really translates into not telling anyone else what to do or pushing our ideas on someone who isn’t ASKING for help.

    “There are no fees to pay, no axes to grind, no lectures to be endured.”

    I found the entire program open and accepting to whatever choices I make…more than my therapists and doctors.

    They just don’t care. My sponsor doesn’t tell me what to do. She just listens, expresses her experience, and tells me to do whatever I want with it.

    It doesn’t stop her from loving me, though.

    However, people are all different and I got sober in Los Angeles. Some groups can be more militant…but it depends on the PEOPLE. At its heart, AA doesn’t seek to control or convince people about God.

    A power ‘greater than oneself’ means just that…anything that can help…be it a friend or a group to just take away the insanity to drink one moment at a time.

  6. Pingback: I Am Just Where I Need to Be (Apparently) « Experience. Strength. Hope.

  7. Hey Lydia,

    This post was sent to me after I’d posted a criticism of AA on my site.

    >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.

    You forgot Scientology (which has no sexual component and does not remove itself or its members from society) and The Family International (which does). Your opinion is a bit intellectually dishonest. No, AA has no specifically religious culture or rite, but it is actively theistic. Sure it hides that with phrasing such as “…as you understood Him”, but the implication is clear. To call it a religion is perhaps a misnomer, but to call it religious is accurate. And what’s this about charismatic leaders? How about the founders? Sure, they’re not around to deliver sermons, but neither is Jesus nor Buddha.

    >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.

    This may be true to some degree, but in my experience, the assumption is that AA is the only way. And this is constantly preached. Not only does the internal culture reflect this, but our culture at large, which is my issue. AA automatically receives wholly undeserved merit and respect. Any criticism is at least frowned upon if not outright blasted.

    >Second, AA does NOT encourage members to leave society, but rather encourages them to become contributing members of it.

    True (to some extent), but Scientology doesn’t encourage people to leave society completely either. This is a question of degrees. Is it possible to be in AA, be an active member, and have “normal” friends outside who engage in behavior that AA looks down on? Sure. But the fact of the matter is that the level of encouragement or discouragement that AA and its members levy upon certain behaviors is very much in a cult mindset.

    >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.

    I’ve already addressed this point, but yes, there are two. Any figure who is lifted onto a pedestal over the “regular” people can be considered a charismatic leader. In my experience, Dr. Bob and Bill W were treated as saints. Every word they had written was held aloft as divine wisdom. And so what of criticism? Plenty of cults, such as the Chabad movement, employ self-criticism.

    >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.

    Not “shun”, no. But harsh judgement is lobbed at those who do not follow the culture that is preached.

    >AA does tell alcoholics that they have no personal power.

    Which is absurd. And having such an absurd notion as a central tenet is at elast irresponsible.

    >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.

    As fine as that may be, the fact is that AA is not required for such principles to exist or be practiced.

    And let’s be honest. One step instructs the member to hand all flaws over to God. That is not a system. That is religious tripe.

    >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.

    By your own admission, the principles of AA are not new to it. By what reasoning then is it a good idea to join and maintain fellowship in AA? The fact is that people can and do stop excessive drinking all the time without AA. There is, then, no reason for AA to exist if all it’s really going to do is rehash some tried and some absurd principles.

    >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.

    This begs the questions, were you unaware of the essentials of ethics before AA? Had it never crossed your mind to take responsibility for your actions? To apologize for the wrong you had done to others? If it had, then you had no need for AA. If it hadn’t, then you need much more than AA to become a productive member of society.

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