AA is not a cult, John D.
Anti AA camps
Attributes of cults
The disease of alcoholism
Finding a higher power
Taking personal responsibility
The program of sharing
Avoiding arguments & liking ourselves
Disagreement and core notions within AA
As a young man I was fascinated by the power behind people’s convictions, but made a compromise with alcohol. I settled instead for, what was at that time pleasure. So, I studied various religious and cults, but today I know that a real spiritual relationship will stand out from a counterfeit one. Even though I still have the same beliefs I did when I was young, I know that before I gave up alcohol my faith wasn’t working, it was never put it to the test. I always had my old best friend, booze to rely on. My religious beliefs didn’t get me sober, but God gave me a moment of clarity when I could see myself as I really was. It was as if an invisible bone broke in my head, and I was no longer unique, and the rules of life began to apply to me. From that point on, I could no longer be tragically misunderstood, but had to take responsibility for my actions. This power was from God.
Anti AA Camps
Through AA, I was able to begin to recover, and I eventually came across some anti AA literature which accused it of being a cult. Because of my prior interest, I felt a need to study this material; what had I gotten myself into? I discovered there is more than one anti AA camp. Two major ones are psychologists, and religious people. These are small fringe groups and in no way represent the majority of psychologists and religious people who have been old friends of AA. In Ohio where AA began, churches still provide inexpensive rooms for most of our meetings. The vast majority of psychologists and counselors, in the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction, embrace AA’s 12 step program of recovery.
The critics are very smart, and have put a great deal of energy into discrediting AA. What could these very different groups, cause even their fringes to, have in common? Perhaps their anger was inspired by some mandatory AA attendance, or maybe they had an alcoholic parent who was unable or unwilling to get sober in AA. Clearly, the fringe religious people think AA is not religious enough, that the church should be the place alcoholics find recovery. The fringe psychologists think AA is too religious, and through analysis and self control some make the incredible claim they can teach alcoholics to drink normally again. Even if they could change a pickle back into a cucumber, no alcoholic really wants to drink. It hurts to drink. We have wasted too many years drunk, and have made far too many attempts at controlled drinking with the same failed results; which, in part accounts for the high turnover in AA membership.
From their experiences, theories and beliefs, both fringe groups have developed distorted opinions about alcoholism and the alcoholic, and are looking for converts, as evidenced by the volumes of free material they have published to the internet. Perhaps I should not be looking for another crusade I can not win, or for people’s approval, but I hope the following will help equip my AA friends with a defense of our great program.
Attributes of cults
First, “AA has no opinions on outside issues...”a Most cults use fear tactics and scare their members into thinking the world is doomed and the only safety in found within the cult. AA is not interested in what is wrong with the world; instead members are encouraged to keep their own side of the street clean; to work on making themselves better. It is true however, that most alcoholics who quit AA will drink again unless they remember where they came from. If we don’t remember our last drunk, maybe we haven’t had it yet. We alcoholics seem to have a selective memory, and are better at remembering the good times associated with our drinking, than the consequences. Members who leave AA may be cautioned how deeply engrained our drinking was, and the need to continue putting the same daily effort into our sobriety that we did our drinking. Anyone wanting to leave should take a close look at their motivation. There is a kind of life boat or fox hole experience in AA which reflects the physical life and death progression of the disease, but anyone is free to come or go as they please. I have seen many people die of this disease, but most who go back to the drink simply re-enter the half life of alcoholism.
Cults demand time and money, but AA has no dues or fees, accepts no outside money, and limits annual donations from wealthy alcoholics to one thousand dollars per year of sobriety. Many members attend only one or two, hour long meetings a week. Because most of us drank every day, new members are encouraged to attend every day. AA has never had a charismatic leader; not even when the founders were alive. Bill Wilson did not like being called “Founder”, as he felt any AA who had been around a while was a founder. “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”b Typically, the secretary of an AA group comes an hour early to set up, and stays a half an hour late to clean up. “Each group”, most ranging in size from 15 to 75, “is autonomous; except in matters effecting other groups or AA as a whole”. During the meeting, no one can monopolize the time by talking too long, and no one can interrupt while another person is talking, known as cross talking. Most meetings are “open meetings” where non alcoholics are allowed to attend and speak. “Closed meetings” are for those who identify themselves as alcoholics.
The disease of alcoholism
The Disease of Alcoholism, in AA, is a self diagnosis. Some drinkers may feel AA is trying to make an alcoholic of them, but only they can decide if they are an alcoholic. Every time I quit drinking, my life got better and it was easy to convince myself that alcohol was not my problem. I didn’t get in trouble every time I drank, however every time I was in trouble, I had been drinking. The time frame which self identification occurs may be shortened with help from others who recognize our destructive behavior before we do. It is not inappropriate when family, friends, or counselors try to show us the reality of our alcoholism, and how it is affecting them. In lead meetings, AA’s share their own alcoholic past, how AA has worked for them, and what their life is like today. All maturing is a process with group directed influences. Groups like, home, school, church, and courts change our opinions and ways we identify ourselves. If there is pressure to identify ones self as an alcoholic in an AA meeting, and snickers when someone does not, it is because we understand the psychological defense mechanisms we used. We would rationalize that our drinking was different; that, “…men of genius conceived their best projects when drunk.”c We would minimize the consequences of our drinking, and blame others attitudes on their belief system. Particular drugs, like alcohol, may be socially acceptable or illegal in various societies; however addiction is not cultural, but universal. Identifying the alcoholic was not a byproduct of our culture or AA; rather AA was a last ditch effort on the part of two alcoholics considered hopeless by society. AA pressure for self identification, as “I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic.” has rubbed some people the wrong way, and inspired much anti AA literature.
There is also a lot of confusion surrounding AA’s two fold disease concept. Alcoholism is a compulsion of the Mind, which makes us feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Alcohol fills a psychological void in the alcoholic. If we alcoholics were completely well adjusted psychologically, we would not feel a need to escape reality with alcohol. Alcoholism is also an allergy of the body. The Doctors Opinion states that “…the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker.” f Once we take a drink, we can not predict when we will stop. It is the engine that kills us, not the caboose- the first drink, not the last. The way alcohol metabolizes in the body of an alcoholic has been scientifically proven to be different than in the body of a non alcoholic. Normal temperate drinkers have been shown not to develop tolerance to alcohol the way alcoholics do. “A gene that helps fruit flies develop alcohol tolerance has been found – and named “hangover”. The gene also controls the flies’ response to stress, and the researchers say that a similar pathway linking alcohol tolerance and stress probably functions in humans.”d
Finding a higher power
Part of the trouble understanding AA comes because we have no set of religious beliefs, yet encourage faith in God. In AA, a spiritual basis for living has been an essential tool to our recovery. AA literature states that, “As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way.”e However, faith is not a requirement, and there are no references to religion. But there are many spiritual principles at work, such as, honesty, purity, unselfishness, openness, willingness, acceptance, love and surrender. I had to be pretty desperate before I accepted my powerlessness over alcohol. Most members have used the AA group as a source of first hand experience. Newly sober members want the turmoil in their lives to cease, and may be eager to listen. At discussion meetings, problems, topics or, a reading form AA literature is shared which sparks conversations about ourselves, often what didn’t work for members of the group. If this is dependence on the group, it is an important step in not making decisions solely on our own; giving our ideas the litmus test of the groups experiences. In a nutshell, the 12 steps boil down to, I can’t drink; God (or the group) can help me stay sober; I think I’ll accept God’s (or the group’s) help. So, this fringe group of psychologists thinks AA relies too much on “God”; they recognize the psychological aspect of the disease and would like treatment to be focused on changing behavior through emotional and mental discovery. Our experience has shown us that self discovery will only occur if we first stay sober. Would these fringe psychologists deprive their patients of faith in God simply because they may think such beliefs are primitive or unnecessary? Not if we were paying customers.
AA has been labeled a cult by some fringe religious people who think AA should have a particular brand of religion. They are zealots who are more concerned about saving a soul, than saving a life. To those religious people, I would remind them when Jesus said, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two” Matt. 5:41 NKJ; he didn’t add, make sure they are on board with all your religious beliefs first. Newly sober AA members with religious beliefs need to recognize that their beliefs were more intellectual than real; that they were not living up to them.
Taking personal responsibility
Though glad that I finally recognized I shouldn’t be drinking, some family and friends were apprehensive about me attending AA meetings. Had my old life been so awful that I really needed AA? They felt that, though I had been bad, I had been punished enough. Alcoholics who drink do bad things, but being told I was bad, or good, served more as an excuse to drink than to get well. The disease concept helped me get out of this rut by giving me a new perspective, and is not a cop out, but an education on the complex nature of my condition, and call to take responsibility for it.
The AA path has been called simple, but not easy. The acceptance of my repeated failures at controlled drinking, the willingness to read AA literature, talk in meetings, and work privately with an AA mentor, or sponsor, takes strength and determination, and never looks weak to the group. When we become honest, and begin to open up, we have turned a corner in our recovery. In time, the desire to drink may be nearly gone. Of course, we will never finish working on ourselves; why we drank in the first place. We will continue to be engaged in the daily process of recovering from the human condition, by “…turn(ing) our will and our life over to God as we understand Him.”g We have been, ”given a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition,” but not cured. Our experience has shown us that If we pick alcohol back up, we do so where we left off, not, of course, as if we never drank.
The program of sharing
The simple program of AA left me no “thinking room” to escape the reality of my own alcoholism. By the time I reached the doors of AA I had become cynical, and questioned the hidden motivation in anything. Alcoholics are good at reading between the lines, so when one alcoholic shares with another alcoholic and his only reason is to keep himself sober, there is no room to mentally shift gears and say, “now I know why you want to help me.” The whole program of AA grew out of the idea that people who feel misunderstood, feel better understood by others who share similar experiences. This horizontal relationship of equals is in stark contrast to the traditional down reaching help given by churches, often contingent on accepting a particular set of religious beliefs. This unequal kind of help made it easy for some of us not to take a hard look at our alcoholism as the source of our problems.
Avoiding arguments & liking ourselves
Arguments over specific religious beliefs tore apart the Washingtonians, a 19th century temperance movement centered around a group of recovered alcoholics, an early forerunner of AA. Some religious people think that once our desire to drink has subsided, we faith based AA members should come back to the church, and we have. Some of us never left. It is when these religious people think alcoholics should leave AA that they have crossed the line. I will not shut the door on my past, because my experiences are useful to the group. If our reputation is found in what God has done for us, why should we be ashamed? We recovered alcoholics have a right to be happy in AA and are perhaps more useful there than anywhere else. By becoming accountable and transparent with others we make peace with ourselves. We can look in the mirror and like ourselves today. It is unfortunate that the level of sharing is far lower in most churches. I wish the church as a whole felt the same urgency, only greater, about our place in God’s eternal plan.
AA’s most recent forerunner, the Oxford Group aspired to a kind of a 1st century Christian experience where its members repented of their sins and made amends to those they had harmed. In an interview in 1936, Oxford Group founder, Frank Buchman made excuses for Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, which ultimately caused the Oxford Group to change its name to Moral Rearmament. Many churches talk about getting ex cons, gang members, prostitutes, and addicts to attend their fellowships. Sadly, when they come, they often do not fit in. To reach out to these people in love, I need go no farther than my local AA meeting. Why would any religious person question what we do when we say the Serenity Prayer at the beginning; and the Lords prayer at the end of our meetings? These fringe religious people might have a problem with the Boy Scouts, another organization which only promotes God, but probably wouldn’t. It is easier to love a boy than an alcoholic.
Disagreement and core notions within AA
This article was written primarily for myself, and AA co-founder Bill Wilson may not have approved of a defense of AA. He said, “Suppose AA falls under sharp public attack or heavy ridicule, having little or no justification in fact. Our best defense in these situations would be no defense whatever- namely, complete silence at the public level. If in good humor we let unreasonable critics alone, they are apt to subside the more quickly.”h Any large successful organization which has cooperated with the court system by signing off on required attendance, will attract dissatisfied customers. These critics have grasped at their beliefs to try to bring down something which we know works. Identifying problem drinkers through hospitals and the justice system, and self identification of alcoholism through AA has been successful.
It is fair to say that most AAs would disagree with something I have written. The original AA members had difficulty agreeing on what happened; why AA worked, so they wrote Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly referred to as the big book. Some AA members take a more strict approach to the AA literature than others, saying the whole program of AA is found in the first 164 pages. Others feel AA works when one alcoholic shares with another, as he trusts God, cleans house, and helps others. There is such a free flow of ideas at the AA meetings I attend, that personal experiences often run counter to advice that may be derived from AA literature. The exception to the rule seems to be the norm. There are few widely accepted notions in AA, more like basic advice for anyone attempting to overcome a drinking problem; Don’t Drink, Read the big book (Alcoholics Anonymous), Call your Sponsor, Go to Meetings, and Pray. From what I have seen, those who speak from the heart out of their own experience will find acceptance regardless of any adherence to any real or imagined AA dogma.
In conclusion, it has been said that AA is a selfish program. Our drinking took us from our family and work, and now AA continues to take our time. In fact, if we don’t stay sober we won’t have a family, house, car or a job. For several years I went to a church that was very proud of the fact that I was an AA member. I felt like I didn’t deserve their praise for giving back what had been generously given to me. Today, I’m grateful for the world of opinions I live in. When I hear an opinion that doesn’t seem right to me, I’m challenged to develop and clarify my own. In no way do I officially speak for AA, but am blessed to be part of the AA program.
I have only scratched the surface of the basic types of AA meetings. There are about as many types of AA meetings as there are alcoholics (or people) in the world, and it is not the answer for everyone with a drinking problem, but it worked for me. Before passing judgment on AA, ponder this wise saying by Herbert Spencer. "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation."
a) AA Tradition 10 “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinions on outside issues; hence the A. A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”
b) AA Tradition 2 “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
c) “…men of genius conceived their best projects when drunk.” Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st edition, Chapter 1, Bill’s Story, by Bill Wilson
d) “…the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker.” Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st edition, The Doctor’s Opinion, William D. Silkworth, M.D.
e) https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn7830-hangover-gene-is-key-to-alcohol-tolerance/ ‘Hangover gene’ is key to alcohol tolerance, updated 11:46 22 August 2005, NewScientist.com news service, Gaia Vince
f) “As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way...” Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st edition, Chapter 4, We Agnostics, by Bill Wilson
g) “…turn(ing) our will and our life over to God as we understood Him.” Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st edition, Chapter 5, How It Works, Step 3, by Bill Wilson
”given a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition,”
“Our best thinking got us here.”
h) As Bill Sees It, Bill Wilson, Without Anger
Print your own Serenity Card.
This file appears blank, but if you scroll down, the front of the card is in the lower left,
so when a regular piece of paper is folded twice (vertically and horizontally), it becomes a card.
AA Sserenity Card
AA readings, which are read at most AA meetings
Alcoholics Anonymous, first edition 1939, chapter 5, pages 58-60, How it Works; Alcoholics Anonymous, first edition 1939, chapter 6, pages 83-84, The Promises
HOW IT WORKS
have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do
not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this
simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of
being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at
fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of
grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their
chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave
emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the
capacity to be honest.
Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it-then you are ready to take certain steps.
At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.
Remember that we deal with alcohol-cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power-that One is God. May you find Him now!
Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.
Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the
result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to
practice these principles in all our affairs.
Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic, and our personal adventures before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:
(a) That we were alcoholic and could not
manage our own lives.
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
(c) That God could and would if He were sought.
If we are
painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are
half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We
will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the
word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have
gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of
uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish
things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole
attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic
insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations
which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what
we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.
Prayers used in AA
The Serenity Prayer, by Dr. Rheinhold Niebuhr, from Boethius, the Roman philosopher (480-524 A.D.)
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen
The Lord’s Prayer
…Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. Matt 6:9-13 KJV
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace,
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.