Is AA A Cult? Let’s Start With A Definition of Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a fellowship of men and women who share a common purpose of helping one another stay sober from alcohol.
Other fellowships exist that have borrowed the major tenets of the program but wanted to broaden its scope to other substances and behaviors such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), and Cocaine Anonymous (CA).
AA has consistently been the preeminent model for treating addiction but many are skeptical. This is likely due to its religious framework and talk of a Higher Power. To be frank, many have gone as far as to stigmatize Alcoholics Anonymous as a cult.
Isn’t this extreme? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. Let’s unwrap this a bit.
Is AA A Cult? Let’s Engage Some Definitions Of A Cult
Broadly, the term “cult” refers to a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. In this sense, all religious systems are cults.
In a more narrow sense, a cult tends to be ideologically counter-cultural, governed by a single leader, and restricts the social life of its adherents to other cult members.
This is the type of cult AA is often accused of being. At this point, people generally ask “what is the difference between religion and cult?”
It’s pretty simple, whereas religious traditions belong to the wider culture and its adherents come and go freely, a cult operates on the cultural periphery, with its followers significantly imprisoned by the rules of the sect.
An excellent definition for our purposes is as follows:
A cult is a countercultural group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life’s questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader’s rules.
Was AA founded upon religious precepts and practices? Yes. Does this by definition render them a cult in the narrower sense? Absolutely not.
Allow me to provide a list of characteristics that are featured in the majority of cults. Let’s use this as a yardstick of sorts to see if AA also fits the bill.
- Unquestioning devotion to a leader. AA, however, doesn’t have any leaders, only trusted servants.
- Members of the group develop an us-versus-them mentality. They often begin to believe that people outside of their group are dangerous. This can happen in any fellowship, but the overarching purpose of AA is to reintegrate and reconnect individuals with their families and society.
- Those who belong to the group are expected to avoid individuals who are not part of this group unless they are trying to convert them. Once more, this can occur in any fellowship, but the major thrust of the AA program is reintegration and reconnection.
- Members believe that there can be no real life outside of the group. AA reports the fellowship of the Spirit occurring virtually anywhere with anyone.
- The leader has free will, as there is no higher authority to keep them accountable. AA has no leaders
- The members of the cult are able to justify unethical behavior because they believe it is for the good of the group. Ethical principles govern behavior in AA as outlined in the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions.
- Brainwashing techniques such as sleep deprivation and ‘love bombing’ are often used to recruit new members. I’m sure some would assert that AA brainwashes its adherents, but the program is largely an ethical system that the participant voluntarily engages in. It’s designed to create a lifestyle crafted by principles rather than the ebb and flow of emotions and moods.
- The leader may use guilt and shame to control the members of the cult. As already mentioned, AA has no leaders, but its members often use guilt and shame as a means to control their members. Nonetheless, their literature doesn’t support this nor is it condoned in the traditions. Rather, it’s a phenomenon that occurs on its own usually with the intention to keep the adherent from relapsing.
- A good deal of time may be devoted to raising money for the group and recruiting new members. This is undoubtedly true in AA, not necessarily in terms of raising money for they are self-supporting through their own contributions, but regarding recruiting. The term AA chooses to use is ‘service,’ and the idea is that in order to stay sober you need to pass on the solution to the still sick in suffering (see Step 12).
- Questioning the leader or having doubts about the teachings are strongly discouraged; such behavior may even be punished. Not only does AA have no leader, but it also has various positions throughout its structure to promote open dialogue. As a matter of fact, the entire artifice seems to be constructed upon honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.
Is Alcoholics Anonymous A Cult? Further Evidence
Do some people take AA meetings to unhealthy heights? Of course. Some folks undoubtedly exchange their alcohol addiction for an AA addiction.
Yet, just because a particular phenomenon occurs in AA doesn’t mean that’s an authentic representation of AA. It’s just poor reasoning to assume so. Let me demonstrate.
Premise 1: The meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous are an addictions recovery support group.
Premise 2: Peter, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, is addicted to meetings.
Conclusion: Therefore, Alcoholics Anonymous is a substitute addiction.
This is a logical fallacy called “converse error or it’s also referred to as affirming the consequent.”
If someone lives in Dallas, they live in Texas. However, if someone lives in Texas, we should not automatically assume they live in Dallas.
In a similar vein, just because someone in Alcoholics Anonymous does something maladaptive it shouldn’t automatically be inferred that this is the standard of AA.
Even if one group is alarmingly cultish, it doesn’t follow that this is the status quo of AA. It’s usually a frowned upon fringe variety group that is equally disturbing to most AA members as it is to the rest of society.
Closing Statements Before The Verdict Is Delivered
Do some people take their AA meetings very seriously? Yes. Many members are particularly diehard. Nonetheless, meetings don’t share the characteristics of a cult.
Is there an obligation to be there? Negative.
Is there a leader? Nope.
Must members mindlessly accept the tenets of the group? Probably nothing is more common than members openly disagreeing with the process during the meetings.
Are people trapped in the group? The ridiculously high turnover rate seems to suggest otherwise!
Can members become radically dogmatic? Sure. Can they become overly evangelical? Absolutely. Do they often think they are spiritual revolutionaries with the one answer to all of life’s difficulties? That’s a big 10-5.
When people try to leave the group some folks mumble, “don’t worry, he’ll be back!” Unfortunately, yes. Do some of the more holier-than-thou members of AA think they can predict the relapse of another? Regrettably, yes.
But does this make it a cult? That’s a hard no. It just means the group has human beings. I’m sure you’re familiar, with those little prone to error and tom foolery globetrotters. Wherever they exist, so do these issues.
Addiction is an isolating illness, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s a social disease more than anything else. That being said, without support, particularly early in the journey, it can be difficult to control cravings and survive them solo.
A group is thus a support group, based on the twelve steps as originally understood in the Big Book (the basic text of the group), to become mindful of negative behavioral patterns, to understand the defects of character that precipitate them, and to discover new ways and means to cope with past traumas, resentments, and shame.
As with all growth, various stages of development exist. Some people in lower levels of development do and say all funky stuff but it would be misleading to establish that as a representation of the whole.
So, is Alcoholics Anonymous a cult?
The verdict: All charges are dismissed, A.A. is not a cult.