AA Is the Cult of What, Exactly?
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AA Is the Cult of What, Exactly?


This post was originally published on August 13, 2013.

People who attend AA meetings with any regularity (and many who don’t) are no doubt familiar with the oft-cast accusation that AA is a cult. I assume the most common interpretation of this theory is that the group is a poorly disguised front for Christianity. To what end that front would operate is beyond me. I guess to make more and/or better Christians? Perhaps you have a better idea; maybe for people to get sex from weak-willed alcoholically deluded converts? Or money? This is the confusing part of the accusation. It’s a cult that aims to do what, exactly? Help people to stop drinking? If that’s the case, then the only appropriate response would be, “Well, duh!” The fact is however, that if AA is a cult, then it’s doing a pretty crappy job at doing whatever it is that it’s trying to do.

AA isn’t the only game in town and people get sober all sorts of ways. Just as there are a million different combinations, levels and degrees of addiction (as well as substance use and abuse), people all over the world stop, start and manage to abstain from these behaviors using myriad techniques and counter-substances: Stick-to-it-iveness, Antabuse, sex, Subutex, meditation, religion, self-help organizations, peyote, stamp-collecting, getting poison surgically implanted in your ass (currently the most popular “cure” for alcoholism in Russia)—the list is endless. Name a problematic behavior and by force of numbers, there’s got to be someone who has tried applying a dirt poultice on his or her genitals to alleviate it. That person may have even gotten some decent results. The point is, no one thing works for everyone.

Internet comments and forums reveal that cult accusers will write a seemingly endless succession of insults in order to argue their beliefs. I’ve noticed that people love to speak in all caps about the subject. You’ll see discussions and counter-arguments with plenty of people attempting to warn the uninitiated about the wrongs that await them in the cult of AA. It can prove to be an amusing read if you’re able to ignore the vitriolic despair oozing out from between the lines.

To address the accusations, let’s take a look at a basic definition of the word from Wikipedia; “In current popular usage, cult is a pejorative term for a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre by the larger society.”

Among the U.S. population, most of whom believe in or worship some type of deity, AA’s reliance on a “power greater than ourselves” to seek relief from a perceived affliction hardly seems abnormal or bizarre. Viewed via a secular perspective, all religious activity would fulfill the aforementioned requirements.

There are many more technical definitions of a cult that aren’t so easily distilled into a sentence or a set of bullet points. From wikianswers.com comes a definition found on multiple other sites in regard to controversial organizations like Scientology, Mormonism, UFO societies, etc. The characteristics are as follows:

1. It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members.

2. It forms an elitist totalitarian society.

3. Its founder/leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.

4. It believes “the end justifies the means” in order to solicit funds recruit people.

5. Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.

In evaluating the list above, only the first of these conditions could apply to AA and in most cases that would be a stretch. Certainly new members are encouraged to come back but nobody forces anyone to stay in an AA meeting.

Perhaps the cult label is a reaction to the fact that AA and the 12 steps have become the de-facto standard prescription for addicts and alcoholics at many institutions and medically oriented treatment centers and rehabs. Fair enough. The steps certainly are often put forward as “the way” to get sober. And, of course, it’s only natural to rail against the status quo. In the absence of a wonder drug or effective, verifiable treatments, perhaps this accusation will be the cross the program must bear until something better comes along. And I do believe other treatment options will come along—hopefully some that will be better or at least prove more effective than what we have currently.

Full disclosure: I am a devotee of “the program.” And believe me, if I could have gotten sober some other way, I would have. I tried willpower, Rational Recovery, rehab, marijuana maintenance, moderate drinking, gambling—you name it. AA is the only thing that has produced the result of multiple and consecutive years of sobriety for me. Notice the “for me.” If it doesn’t work for you, go try something else. There are many other options for the choosing and some, like AA, are even free. And again, speaking just for myself, I am definitely not a Christian.

This isn’t a scientific treatise. I’m just saying that much of the accusations heaped on AA seem to tune out factors like the world we live in. In other words, I’m familiar with the place where old men (and the occasional woman) prey on weak-willed young men and women for sex: it’s called society—aka, everywhere. That this exists in the rooms of AA is not surprising. What would be surprising is if the opposite were the case.

And then there’s that other great motivator: money. I don’t know about you but I have never seen anyone put more than a $20 bill in the collection basket and even that is an extreme rarity. Nobody is getting monetarily rich on AA. And if they are, then they have a different definition of rich than I do. It’s the seventh tradition of AA that “Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.” This tradition assures that the group itself has no assets to speak of.

When I see the all-caps cult accusations, I can’t help but imagine what that person is thinking and what I imagine is someone who really doesn’t want to get sober via AA. And to that I say: THAT’S FINE. They shouldn’t. If they had a bad experience or some AA-er tried to tell them something that didn’t square with them, I’m just bummed that this particular negative experience had to somehow represent AA in its entirety. And worse, it saddens me that this person feels the need to try and dissuade somebody else from seeking relief from their problem in AA.

In the end, you want to know what most AA’s think about the cult accusation? Well actually, I can’t speak for most of us but I know what I think and that is—hey, that’s cool. You go ahead and think whatever you want. I hope you achieve your goals in whatever way you deem suitable.

In my experience, AA’s just want to help you get sober because that leads to our dirty little secret: trying to keep you sober has the direct by-product of keeping me sober. Perhaps just for one more day. So in effect my altruism isn’t entirely altruistic. I’m using you. That’s not a bad thing. It benefits both of us and there’s nothing sleazy or wrong about it. It’s just, as a newcomer, you don’t really understand how the group operates yet so you think it’s all about you. Which it is. Sort of. But not really.

Good luck staying sober if that’s what you are into and enjoy that dirt poultice.

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About Author

Jared Mazzaschi is a writer and producer living in LA. He blogs at whydontyoulikeme.com.