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Cults 101: Does AA Qualify as a Cult?

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Cults 101: Does AA Qualify as a Cult?

Alcoholics Anonymous offers help for people seeking respite from substance abuse. Its active members proudly tout the effectiveness of group’s teachings. Despite lack of hard evidence, AA has helped countless people find a better way of life. There is no disputing that. But though the program works for many recovering alcoholics, outsiders (and even ones in recovery) often see AA members as religious zealous. Many alcoholics who try leaving the group feel betrayed and ostracized by AA members who fear other methods of recovery. Platitudes originating from the group’s deceased founder Bill W. ring like cult-speak (“it works if you work it” and “we are only as sick as our secrets”).  All these peculiarities perpetuated by Alcoholics Anonymous beg the question, “Does AA qualify as a cult?”

Does AA Qualify as a Cult?

Objectively Qualifying Cults

Strange as it sounds, Michael D. Langone, PhD developed a cult checklist in the early 1990s. His doctorate in clinical psychology and decades of experience interviewing cult members bolster his unique expertise in the field of cult studies. The cult checklist has since undergone decades of revision and refinement with the help of other qualified experts in the field of mental health. Its most current version was published in ICSA Today, 6(3), 2015. We aim to qualify or disqualify each of the 15 checkpoints by scrutinizing the practices of AA.

So, does AA qualify as a cult? Let’s take a closer look. Each checklist point “Pass” verdict will add a point to AA’s cult score.

#1 Commitment to Leader

Group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Verdict – Pass: The group’s founder, Bill Wilson, is a layman’s idol among AA members. Despite the affectionate intonation people seem to take when referring to “good ol’ Bill W.”, members rarely question his teachings as laid out in the Big Book. Many meetings devote themselves exclusively to its study.

#1 Pass (+1)

Total: 1/1

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#2 Punishing Dissent

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Verdict – Fail: The Big Book is very clear that dissent is a personal choice (albeit an unwise one). Chapter 3 states, “If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right-about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him. Heaven knows, we have tried hard enough and long enough to drink like other people!”

#2 Fail

Total: 1/2

#3 Mind Control to Suppress Doubts

‪ Mind-altering practices (meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

Verdict – Fail: Although AA meetings often utilize group chants for things like the serenity prayer, it is optional and not excessive.

#3 Fail

Total: 1/3

#4 Controlling Personal Lives

‪ The leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel. For example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry. They also may also prescribe what clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, et cetera.

Verdict – Pass: Prescribing behavior for recovering alcoholics is one of the major tenets of AA. Most members see this as a positive thing, as they came to the group seeking a new way of living.

#4 Pass (+1)

Total: 2/4

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#5 Elitist Self Image

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar, or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

Verdict – Pass: Much of the language in the Big Book focuses on alcoholics treating themselves as a separate class. And with the way members speak so reverently of Bill Wilson, this checkpoint is a pass.

#5 Pass (+1)

Total: 3/5

#6 David Against Goliath Complex

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

Verdict – Pass: Many would argue that this is AA’s most cult-like feature. Despite the Big Book’s lip service to humility and self-diagnosis, members often view the 12 Steps as the only valid method of recovery. If you disagree with this point, try asking an AA group what they think about medication-assisted treatment.

#6 Pass (+1)

Total: 4/6

#7 Leader Above the Law

The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

Verdict – Fail: All AA members are held accountable to the law (court-ordered meeting cards, anyone?).

#7 Fail

Total: 4/7

#8 Machiavellian Ideation

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

Verdict – Fail: Though AA prescribes certain behaviors that may seem extreme (such as total abstinence forever), members do not breach ethical boundaries. In fact, quite the opposite! Most of the 12 Steps work toward making up for past alcoholic behaviors.

#8 Fail

Total: 4/8

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#9 Utilizing Guilt & Shame

The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Verdict – Pass: Many would argue that this is AA’s most cult-like feature. Despite the Big Book’s lip service to humility and self-diagnosis, members often view the 12 Steps as the only valid method of recovery. If you disagree with this point, try asking an AA group what they think about medication-assisted treatment.

#9 Pass (+1)

Total: 5/9

#10 – #13

#10 Cutting Off Support: Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.

#11 Membership Growth: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

#12 Greed: The group is preoccupied with making money.

#13 Time Commitment: Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Verdict – Fail: None of these checkpoints apply to AA. The 12 Steps offer a free, voluntary path to healing relationships with non-members. The time commitment to the group is totally up to each person (and maybe their sponsor).

#10 – #13 Fail

Total: 5/13

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#14 Discourages Fraternization with Outsiders

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Verdict – Pass: This verdict comes more from the community of AA than the Big Book itself. Outsiders often describe AA meetings as “clique-y”. Although AA is anonymous by definition, it does suggest that alcoholics stay away from “people, places, and things” that are linked to alcohol. Many also recommend sober living situations which, honestly, is good advice for people in early recovery.

#14 Pass (+1)

Total: 6/14

#15 Fear of Leaving

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Verdict – Pass: Along with checkpoint #9 (Utilizing Guilt and Shame), checkpoint #15 hits a sore spot with many longtime AA members. The problem arises from AA’s core tenet of total and complete abstinence… forever. Even if three years down the line, you arrive at a place in your recovery where total abstinence doesn’t feel necessary. But many rightfully fear rebuke if they share this progress in meetings. In AA, tolerance for other methods of recovery hovers right around zero.

#15 Pass (+1)

Total: 7/15

Does AA Qualify as a Cult?

So, does AA qualify as a cult? This checklist is a subjective diagnostic tool, and with a positive score of 46%, we’ll leave that judgement up to you.

But regardless of who thinks AA is a cult or not, an irrefutable fact remains. It offers excellent tools for recovering alcoholics. Not to mention it saves lives and hosts a huge fellowship community. These resources are invaluable to people searching for long term recovery from addiction.

Author’s Note: Alcoholics Anonymous is a recovery support group, not a replacement for treatment. It’s most effective once a person has already gone through detox, residential care, and outpatient. If you or a loved one is seeking help for a substance abuse problem, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363

Posted in Addiction, Alcoholism, Recovery