Is AA a cult?
AA – cult or cure?
When I first came into recovery from alcoholism, I was a confirmed agnostic. It soon became apparent that a relationship with God or a higher power was the purpose of AA’s twelve steps. Realizing this, I got very disheartened. I came into the program to stop drinking, not to become religious. What did God or a higher power have to do with recovery from alcoholism? I began to wonder if coming to AA was a mistake. Was it some cult, or at the very least, a quasi-religion?
I’m a recovering alcoholic with thirty-nine years in the program. I have called this blog “Is AA a cult”? This question has always fascinated me. What is a cult, and how is it formed? More importantly, why are cults created? As an old-timer in AA, I will answer this question as honestly as possible. At the very least, newcomers deserve an answer based on many years of experience in the program.
What is a cult?
Before offering some answers, it may be helpful to share with you some definitions of the word cult:
“In the English-speaking world, the term cult often carries derogatory connotations. In this sense, the word cult has been considered a subjective term. It is frequently used as an ad hominem attack against groups with differing doctrines or practices. As such, a scholar on religions, Megan Goodwin, defined the term cult when the layperson uses it. He says it is often shorthand for a “religion I don’t like” Wikipedia.
“Sociology Professor Benjamin Zablocki of Rutgers Univesity states: Destructive cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members. He maintains that such is partly due to members’ adulation of charismatic leaders. This may contribute to the leaders becoming corrupted by power” Wikipedia.
(chiefly derogatory) A group, sect, or movement following an unorthodox religious or philosophical system of beliefs. Members tend to remove and exclude themselves from greater society . This may include family members not part of the cult. Members show extreme devotion to a charismatic leader. Wiktionary
Traditions two, three and twelve
Several of the traditions may serve to demystify the all-important question. Does AA as an organization fall into the category of a cult that is so often characterized by charismatic leadership?
Tradition two: “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.”
Tradition three: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
Tradition Twelve: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
In these three traditions, the guiding principles of AA are made abundantly clear.
The traditions clearly discourage any “charismatic leadership.” (Wikipedia)
Moreover, the preamble that is read at the beginning of every meeting makes the following statement: –
“A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.”
Splinter groups in AA
Sooner or later, some members begin to separate themselves from mainstream AA. Differences of opinion develop about the most effective way to recover from alcoholism. When this happens, schisms develop.
It would seem that these splinter groups have one thing in common: They are usually created and led by what Wikipedia describes as a “Charismatic leader” or leaders. In AA, these are strong personalities whose agenda is to impose their ideas on how to get sober. These ideas frequently follow a subjective interpretation of The AA Big Book.
Confident, charismatic personalities can be convincing. They can seduce new members into accepting their ideas without question. The creation of their power base has a clear agenda. To sell their beliefs as if they were sacrosanct.
On the whole, mainstream AA remains healthy and committed to the preamble and its twelve traditions. Although the fellowship is a pure democracy, the formation of splinter groups has sometimes undermined the third tradition of AA. The third tradition ensures that no individual or group can ever be excluded from the fellowship. Every group is free to pursue recovery in a way that works for them, including fundamentalism, be it religious or otherwise.
“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Third Tradition
Fundamentalism in AA
Some alcoholics in the fellowship seem to benefit from a disciplined, fundamentalist style of recovery. This appears to work for some AA members—alcoholics with powerful personalities frequently set up these hardcore splinter groups.
Research suggests that “Charismatic leaders” (Wikipedia) may also be suffering from a coexisting personality disorder. Clinicians often describe these people as having a narcissistic personality disorder. These people need excessive admiration and craving for power. They set themselves up as recovery gurus.
Very quickly, these groups develop all the defining characteristics of cult consciousness. Can these groups be damaging vulnerable and needy newcomers? Yes! Splinter groups in AA are “at high risk of becoming abusive to members” Wikipedia.
The plain truth is that sponsors in fundamentalist groups are free agents, unsupervised, un-vetted, and unaccountable to anyone, so they do what they like.
If you have a drinking problem and want to stop, please know that the twelve steps can transform your life. Mainstream AA is neither a cult nor a quasi-religion. It’s a program of psychological development leading to spiritual transcendence.
The twelve steps facilitate a non-God-centered spiritual awakening for many atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. A tangible spiritual awakening based on love and service to others can be powerful enough to facilitate a happy and contented sobriety.
Love and Tolerance
One of the guiding tenets of AA is: “Love and tolerance of others.” A statement made by Bill W, one of AA’s founders. You will find the relevant quote in Chapter Six on page 84.
In 39 years of AA membership, I have found that most members are committed to love and tolerance for others. As with any organization, people will always interpret its philosophy to suit their agendas. The fellowship is no exception!
To return to the original title of the blog: Is AA a cult? The short answer to this question is NO, NOT AT ALL! That said, there are fundamentalist splinter groups within AA that have all the defining characteristics of a cult. As I have already said, some AA members benefit from this type of rigid fundamentalism. It’s up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
For a two-year period, I was helped by the discipline practiced in these groups. I cannot deny that, at the time, they freed me from the revolving door of relapse. One important question remains. Is it possible to guide a newcomer to a meaningful spiritual awakening through what can only be described as intimidation and control?
Twenty-seven years have now passed since my last relapse. These days, I enjoy a peaceful and happy sobriety in mainstream AA.
Please follow the link if you are concerned about ending up in a cult-like splinter group in AA.