hat a cult really is, what it isn't, and basic characteristics of a cult. I found an interesting list that I am going to go through here...
Alcoholics Anonymous: A Cult?
"The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law."
This one is pretty self-explanatory: cult members listen to the leader and laws with complete faith. In a way, we do this in AA. We take the Twelve Steps, we abstain from drinking, and follow sponsor direction. However, this really doesn't fit AA at all. First, we have no central leader, despite arguments of Bill W. or Dr. Bob being our leaders. Our sponsors are also not our sole leaders. AA's Third Tradition states, "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." There are no leaders, just service positions. Although the use of the word "God" here may be cult-like, it is simply stating that your own Higher Power is your authority. More on this later...
Second, Alcoholics Anonymous does not require that we regard our sponsor, the founders, the Big Book, nor anything heard in meetings as absolute truth nor law. We are simply hearing the experiences of others. Although we are greatly encouraged to get sponsors, to work the steps, and to stay sober, none of these are laws or absolute truth. As the Second Traditions says, "The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking." Yes, that is a rule or "law," but this is really the only requirement for membership. There are many examples of going against the teachings given in AA. I don't have one sponsor. I have four men that I call regularly and we work together: a Buddhist teacher, a therapist (not mine), my original sponsor who is a Big Book thumper, and an old family friend with whom I have always been very close with. They all offer my different perspectives, and I am proud to not have just one sponsor. Also, I don't believe that alcoholism is a "disease." Yes, it may be inherited in the form of an addictive personality or anxiety. But I simply do not see the evidence that alcoholism is a disease. Finally, many consider me an atheist. I don't have a "Higher Power" other than the Three Jewels. I use the Buddhist teachings, the community, and my own Buddha-seed as my Higher Power. I believe that everything that people perceive as a Higher Power has a true scientific explanation. Just as there were times when stars and the wind were seen as Gods, I believe that science will advance to explain "energy" and the power of the AA rooms. These are just a few personal ways that I do not take the teachings of AA as absolute truth; there are many more examples in any random meeting.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
This characteristic really touches on what we previously discussed. The only requirement is to have a desire to stop drinking, and everything else is up to you. Yes, it is discouraged to be atheist, not have a sponsor, or not go to meetings. They are never punished but are certainly discouraged. However, I have found a group of fellow alcoholics that are interested in questioning the program like me. In this way, I am no longer discouraged, but actually encouraged to find my own truth.
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
I couldn't help but laugh as I read this one. Yes, we meditate and pray, but definitely not in excess nor to suppress doubts. Used appropriately, meditation does the opposite of "surpress." It brings these doubts to our attention and helps us address them, however that may be. We use "mind-altering" practices to bring us into touch with the world, the present moment, and our emotions. However, most of us used mind-altering "practices" in excess before we got sober!
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
This one is pretty easy. We do have a Big Book and sponsors that tell us greatly how to act. It is full of many pieces of advice. However, neither of these are our leaders. Furthermore, we do not need permission for any of these things, nor take prescriptions. We are only given suggestions and the experience of others. Nobody rules our decisions like these.
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).
This is a classic characteristic of a cult. Cults most often claim to be chosen ones. In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is no such claim. Furthermore, we do not believe that any leader is a Messiah. The founders were simply alcoholics who found a way that worked for them. Our sponsors are simply people who would like to share their experience with us. Nobody is hoping to save humanity, just to help other alcoholics.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
This is the first one on the list that I came across that my first thought was that this is actually true. My biased mind searched to find a way this was not true for AA, but I really think it is. In AA meetings we hear the word "normies" or "normal people" all too frequently. Although AA does encourage us to become a part of society, there is a huge undertone of this us-versus-them mentality. It is not horribly negative as with most cults; it has more to do with sticking with those that are sober.
Obviously when we get sober it is healthier to spend time with other sober people. Even as sobriety progresses, it is often easier to be friends with like-minded people. However helpful this may be, it is exactly what this characteristic is talking about.
The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
This one is simple. AA does not have a leader.
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 joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
This is ABSOLUTELY not the case in Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous is pretty close to the opposite in this regard. AA teaches us to watch all of our actions very carefully. We hear many times about the importance of rigorous honesty; we cannot tell white lies nor lie by omission. The means do not justify any ends. Our means must be loving and kind. We absolutely are not performing negative, hurtful actions. In fact, we begin behaving far better than before we got sober.
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.
Again, AA has no leader! There is no essential part of the program that is inducing shame or guilt. My personal experience is that the group induces feelings of hope in order to influence people, and it is often done through peer pressure and (sometimes subtle) forms of persuasion. The room does influence the newcomer greatly. Giving the newcomer experience, strength, and hope is a way to influence him or her. We certainly don't encourage guilt or shame. As the 9th Step Promises states, "We no longer regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it." Alcoholics Anonymous helps us to come to terms with our past, leaving shame and guilt behind. Furthermore, it is often done through peer pressure outside of meetings. There are three points here: AA has no leader, AA does not induce shame or guilt, and AA does in fact influence members via peer pressure.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
First of all, we are neither subservient to the leader nor the group. However, we do sometimes have to cut ties with family and friends, especially while newly sober. We must take care of ourselves first, and this sometimes involves spending time with fellow sober alcoholics. When we cut ties with friends, we must be mindful of the fact that many of our friends are often sick alcoholics and addicts. This cutting of ties is extremely healthy, and is not obscenely hurtful and irrational as is done in cults. We also do radically alter our goals and activities we had. Again, this is a good thing, as we are no longer drinking and driving, and are now riding our bikes to AA meetings. My opinion on this one is that AA pretty much fits this characteristic (with the exception of the subservience to the leader part), and I am grateful for these things!
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
This does not apply to AA. We are not preoccupied with bringing in new members. Alcoholics Anonymous does not promote in any way, nor push people to join. Most often, we wait until somebody asks us for help. Our main preoccupation is on helping the new members. Unlike many cults, AA does not greatly benefit from more members financially.
The group is preoccupied with making money.
This is obviously not applicable. The Seventh Tradition reminds us to be self-supporting. The chapter on the Seventh Tradition in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions reminds us of times in the past when AA was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars and declined it. Alcoholics Anonymous does not want a lot of money, so they can avoid the problem of finances. Groups are self supporting, and do not need more money.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Alcoholics Anonymous does not expect we devote any crazy amount of time (although a newcomer may disagree!). Even with those who recommend 90 meetings in 90 days, AA does not demand very much time. We attend meetings that are an hour or two, do stepwork, and help others. Otherwise, this AA does not at all expect us to devote a lot of time, and certainly not "inordinate amounts of time."
Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
This one is, in my opinion, mostly true. As alcoholics, we are most certainly encouraged to socialize with other sober alcoholics. As far as living situations go, we are often encouraged to live with other sober people. However, neither of these suggestions actually appear in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is one characteristic that I feel AA definitely has to some degree, and again I am grateful for this.
I can't keep track of how many times I have heard this in my sobriety (and before). I hear this all the time from friends and often newcomers. My go-to defense is that, unlike a cult, AA has no central leader that we all worship. After hearing somebody say this recently outside a meeting, I decided to do a little research. I found a lot of information about what a cult really is, what it isn't, and basic characteristics of a cult. I found an interesting list that I am going to go through here...
Alcoholics Anonymous: A Cult?
"The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law."
This one is pretty self-explanatory: cult members listen to the leader and laws with complete faith. In a way, we do this in AA. We take the Twelve Steps, we abstain from drinking, and follow sponsor direction. However, this really doesn't fit AA at all. First, we have no central leader, despite arguments of Bill W. or Dr. Bob being our leaders. Our sponsors are also not our sole leaders. AA's Third Tradition states, "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." There are no leaders, just service positions. Although the use of the word "God" here may be cult-like, it is simply stating that your own Higher Power is your authority. More on this later...
Second, Alcoholics Anonymous does not require that we regard our sponsor, the founders, the Big Book, nor anything heard in meetings as absolute truth nor law. We are simply hearing the experiences of others. Although we are greatly encouraged to get sponsors, to work the steps, and to stay sober, none of these are laws or absolute truth. As the Second Traditions says, "The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking." Yes, that is a rule or "law," but this is really the only requirement for membership. There are many examples of going against the teachings given in AA. I don't have one sponsor. I have four men that I call regularly and we work together: a Buddhist teacher, a therapist (not mine), my original sponsor who is a Big Book thumper, and an old family friend with whom I have always been very close with. They all offer my different perspectives, and I am proud to not have just one sponsor. Also, I don't believe that alcoholism is a "disease." Yes, it may be inherited in the form of an addictive personality or anxiety. But I simply do not see the evidence that alcoholism is a disease. Finally, many consider me an atheist. I don't have a "Higher Power" other than the Three Jewels. I use the Buddhist teachings, the community, and my own Buddha-seed as my Higher Power. I believe that everything that people perceive as a Higher Power has a true scientific explanation. Just as there were times when stars and the wind were seen as Gods, I believe that science will advance to explain "energy" and the power of the AA rooms. These are just a few personal ways that I do not take the teachings of AA as absolute truth; there are many more examples in any random meeting.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
This characteristic really touches on what we previously discussed. The only requirement is to have a desire to stop drinking, and everything else is up to you. Yes, it is discouraged to be atheist, not have a sponsor, or not go to meetings. They are never punished but are certainly discouraged. However, I have found a group of fellow alcoholics that are interested in questioning the program like me. In this way, I am no longer discouraged, but actually encouraged to find my own truth.
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
I couldn't help but laugh as I read this one. Yes, we meditate and pray, but definitely not in excess nor to suppress doubts. Used appropriately, meditation does the opposite of "surpress." It brings these doubts to our attention and helps us address them, however that may be. We use "mind-altering" practices to bring us into touch with the world, the present moment, and our emotions. However, most of us used mind-altering "practices" in excess before we got sober!
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
This one is pretty easy. We do have a Big Book and sponsors that tell us greatly how to act. It is full of many pieces of advice. However, neither of these are our leaders. Furthermore, we do not need permission for any of these things, nor take prescriptions. We are only given suggestions and the experience of others. Nobody rules our decisions like these.
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).
This is a classic characteristic of a cult. Cults most often claim to be chosen ones. In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is no such claim. Furthermore, we do not believe that any leader is a Messiah. The founders were simply alcoholics who found a way that worked for them. Our sponsors are simply people who would like to share their experience with us. Nobody is hoping to save humanity, just to help other alcoholics.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
This is the first one on the list that I came across that my first thought was that this is actually true. My biased mind searched to find a way this was not true for AA, but I really think it is. In AA meetings we hear the word "normies" or "normal people" all too frequently. Although AA does encourage us to become a part of society, there is a huge undertone of this us-versus-them mentality. It is not horribly negative as with most cults; it has more to do with sticking with those that are sober.
Obviously when we get sober it is healthier to spend time with other sober people. Even as sobriety progresses, it is often easier to be friends with like-minded people. However helpful this may be, it is exactly what this characteristic is talking about.
The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
This one is simple. AA does not have a leader.
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 joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
This is ABSOLUTELY not the case in Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous is pretty close to the opposite in this regard. AA teaches us to watch all of our actions very carefully. We hear many times about the importance of rigorous honesty; we cannot tell white lies nor lie by omission. The means do not justify any ends. Our means must be loving and kind. We absolutely are not performing negative, hurtful actions. In fact, we begin behaving far better than before we got sober.
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.
Again, AA has no leader! There is no essential part of the program that is inducing shame or guilt. My personal experience is that the group induces feelings of hope in order to influence people, and it is often done through peer pressure and (sometimes subtle) forms of persuasion. The room does influence the newcomer greatly. Giving the newcomer experience, strength, and hope is a way to influence him or her. We certainly don't encourage guilt or shame. As the 9th Step Promises states, "We no longer regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it." Alcoholics Anonymous helps us to come to terms with our past, leaving shame and guilt behind. Furthermore, it is often done through peer pressure outside of meetings. There are three points here: AA has no leader, AA does not induce shame or guilt, and AA does in fact influence members via peer pressure.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
First of all, we are neither subservient to the leader nor the group. However, we do sometimes have to cut ties with family and friends, especially while newly sober. We must take care of ourselves first, and this sometimes involves spending time with fellow sober alcoholics. When we cut ties with friends, we must be mindful of the fact that many of our friends are often sick alcoholics and addicts. This cutting of ties is extremely healthy, and is not obscenely hurtful and irrational as is done in cults. We also do radically alter our goals and activities we had. Again, this is a good thing, as we are no longer drinking and driving, and are now riding our bikes to AA meetings. My opinion on this one is that AA pretty much fits this characteristic (with the exception of the subservience to the leader part), and I am grateful for these things!
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
This does not apply to AA. We are not preoccupied with bringing in new members. Alcoholics Anonymous does not promote in any way, nor push people to join. Most often, we wait until somebody asks us for help. Our main preoccupation is on helping the new members. Unlike many cults, AA does not greatly benefit from more members financially.
The group is preoccupied with making money.
This is obviously not applicable. The Seventh Tradition reminds us to be self-supporting. The chapter on the Seventh Tradition in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions reminds us of times in the past when AA was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars and declined it. Alcoholics Anonymous does not want a lot of money, so they can avoid the problem of finances. Groups are self supporting, and do not need more money.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Alcoholics Anonymous does not expect we devote any crazy amount of time (although a newcomer may disagree!). Even with those who recommend 90 meetings in 90 days, AA does not demand very much time. We attend meetings that are an hour or two, do stepwork, and help others. Otherwise, this AA does not at all expect us to devote a lot of time, and certainly not "inordinate amounts of time."
Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
This one is, in my opinion, mostly true. As alcoholics, we are most certainly encouraged to socialize with other sober alcoholics. As far as living situations go, we are often encouraged to live with other sober people. However, neither of these suggestions actually appear in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is one characteristic that I feel AA definitely has to some degree, and again I am grateful for this.
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.
Cult members fear leaving a group for other members may come after them or their family trying to cause pain. This certainly does not happen in Alcoholics Anonymous. Also, loyal members know there is life outside the group. AA is not our entire lives; it is simply a place and program where we can learn to help ourselves and others out in the real world. Some people call AA a gas station for refueling our spirituality.
In conclusion, it is pretty obvious AA is not a cult. Claims that AA is a cult are most often from those that don't try the program and who are resentful toward it. Reading pieces about how AA is a cult, I find that I often disagree with the points made. AA holds close to none of the characteristics of a cult. In our next piece, we will discuss how our Alcoholism is more cult-like.
This list of qualities of a cult can be found at http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm. Thank you for allowing us to use this information.