AA Is a Cult: Fact or Myth? How AA Really Works

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book" by AAWS. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Do you think AA is a cult? What kind of organization is Alcoholics Anonymous? Why do people sometimes think AA is a cult?

You might think AA is a cult, but the principles in The Big Book aren’t problematic at face value. However, AA is run through local organizations, so some may be more problematic than others.

Read more about whether or not AA is a cult and understand the criticisms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Myth: AA Is a Cult

There’s plenty of criticism of AA as operating like a cult. From our reading of the Big Book, AA’s principles seem relatively benign. The idealized version of an AA group seems to be secular and accepting of a diverse range of people.

The commonly known requirement of “belief in a higher power” bothers people who believe medical treatment should be secular. The Big Book makes pretty clear this does not require the Christian conception of God. An AA member puts it in a secular framing: “It’s not just a God, or a spiritual power, but the fact that you’re just a singular being that can’t, in your own, resolve this. Even a group of friends and family, something inarguably larger than yourself, is enough.”

It’s possible that AA’s decentralized, autonomous design has caused some member groups to be run in a polarizing way. It’s not hard to imagine that some AA groups are more rigid, religious or Christian, or predatory. And since AA was started in the US in the 1940s, there are traditions such as prayers that probably started out Christian-influenced that have to be explained away. But, all of that doesn’t equate to the conclusion that AA is a cult.

Gaining Buy-In Into AA

Getting people to join AA can involve some persuasive tactics. These can make it seem like AA is a cult that is trying to bring people in.

  • “We are average Americans. All sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and religious backgrounds.”
  • “We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship. We are like the passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue. We have discovered a common solution.”
  • “We have been speaking to you of serious, sometimes tragic things. We have been dealing with alcohol in its worst aspect. But we aren’t a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn’t want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.”

Teach by telling stories, not by instructing the reader. Provide plenty of anecdotes of success stories and warning stories.

  • The Big Book includes 36 separate stories of recovering alcoholics. Their general structure:
    • Here is my background and employment history. (There is a diverse set of backgrounds)
    • Here is how I got into drinking, then fell deeper into alcoholism. Here is how bad it got. Here are all the things I tried to get over it, and the justifications I gave for drinking.
    • Here was my turning point that turned me onto AA (often hitting a particularly bad time, or an AA member approaching me).
    • Here was my process of recovery. Here’s what I liked most about the process.
    • Here’s where I am now.
    • Here’s my best advice.
  • “I was out of hope. Then a man who made a complete recovery came to me. I was skeptical, but I tried it, and it worked.“ 
  • “Each individual describes in his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his relationship with God.”

Preempt skepticism about the motives of people promoting AA.

  • “Our hope is that many alcoholics will see these pages. Only by fully disclosing ourselves and our problems will they be persuaded to say, “Yes, I am one of them too; I must have this thing.”

Empathize with the reader. Address their misgivings. 

  • “Almost none of us liked the [tactics required]. But we saw it really worked in others.”
  • “Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. “
  • “Some of our alcoholic readers may think they can do without spiritual help. Let us tell you the rest of the conversation.”
  • “Our friend was somewhat relieved, for he reflected that, after all, he was a good church member. This hope, however, was destroyed by the doctor’s telling him that while his religious convictions were very good, in his case they did not spell the necessary vital spiritual experience.”
  • “We hope no one will consider these self-revealing accounts in bad taste. Our hope is that many alcoholic men and women, desperately in need, will see these pages, and we believe that it is only by fully disclosing ourselves and our problems that they will be persuaded to say, ‘Yes, I am one of them too; I must have this thing.”
  • From a doctor: “Though not a religious person, I have profound respect for the spiritual approach in such cases as yours. For most cases, there is virtually no other solution.”

Give hope to the most helpless cases. If AA is a cult, they are attracting people who are in weak positions. But, the principles of The Big Book are not about recruitment but improvement, and can help disprove the idea that AA is a cult.

  • “I have seen hundreds of families set their feet in the path that really goes somewhere; have seen the most impossible domestic situations righted; feuds and bitterness of all sorts wiped out. I have seen men come out of asylums and resume a vital place in the lives of their families and communities. Business and professional men have regained their standing. There is scarcely any form of trouble and misery which has not been overcome among us.”
  • This is sometimes conveyed through a neutral third party like a doctor. “I thought there was no hope for you, but cure you did.”

Use a third party authority as indirect validation of the program, namely doctors.

  • In the book, a doctor says to a recovering alcoholic, “Something has happened to you I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything is better than the way you were.”
  • “I have felt that AA is a group unto themselves and their best results can be had under their own guidance, as a result of their philosophy. Any therapeutic or philosophic procedure which can prove a recovery rate of 50% to 60% must merit our consideration.”

Don’t be pushy about onboarding. It only works for people who realize they need help and are at wits’ end. Let people come to their own conclusion about whether they need help, and be ready and willing when they are around.

AA Is a Cult: Fact or Myth? How AA Really Works

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of AAWS's "Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book summary:

  • How alcoholism is a nearly insurmountable disease that non-alcoholics can't understand
  • The key 12 steps of the program, and why they work
  • Why Alcoholics Anonymous isn't a cult and why it works

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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