Part 1: Cult or Cure?

If you have any knowledge to do with the world of addiction recovery then you have most probably heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It is also extremely likely that if you have engaged in a conversation with others at some point about AA that the word ‘cult’ may have popped up.

The real question here being; is AA a Cult or a Cure for people in addiction recovery?

There are many misconceptions of AA and it’s 12-step approach to tackling addiction recovery. This article aims to shine light on the debate.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an abstinence-based recovery fellowship. The fellowship exists all across the world. The aim being to help to support those who are struggling with alcohol consumption. The AA fellowship adopts a suggested programme of personal recovery, which is described in Twelve Steps based on the experience of the earliest members of the Society and are published in the AA ‘Big Book’.

To support the AA groups that were being set-up all over the world, the early members also created a set of 12 Traditions, which provide suggested group attitudes and guiding principles. Again, based on hard learned experience through AA’s first decade, the intent is to help assure the survival of each group, without reliance on a ‘leader’ figure, or formal governance. Each group should be self-organising and self-sustaining for the benefit of all its members.

According to the official AA website ‘AA is concerned solely with the personal recovery and continued sobriety of individual alcoholics who turn to the Fellowship for help.’

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The word ‘cult’ was originally used to refer to groups of people who worshipped a deity. As the AA was originally founded on religious practices, some people think there is a connection.

Some common characteristics of a cult are as described below:

  • A charismatic leader: Cults always follow a charismatic leader, living or dead, whose teachings are considered of the highest importance. This leader may be considered a genius, or may be considered a religious figure like a messiah or prophet.
  • Ideological purity: Members are strongly discouraged from questioning the cult's doctrine and any doubts are met with shame or punishment.
  • Conformity and control: Cult leaders often exercise an extreme degree of control over members' lives, including dictating what they can wear and eat and what kinds of relationships they can have. Conformity is also enforced by group members who police one another.
  • Mind-altering practices: Sleep deprivation, chanting, meditation, and drugs are often used to break down individuals' defences and make them more susceptible to cult ideology.
  • Isolation and love-bombing: It is common for people in cults to be encouraged to cut contact with outsiders, including close family members. Within the cult, new members are often subjected to love-bombing, a practice where new initiates are showered with love and praise to bring them deeper into the cult and foster a sense of belonging.
  • Us-vs-them mentality: Cult members are often encouraged to see the cult as superior to life on the outside and to feel that those outside the cult lack understanding or insight.
  • Apocalyptic thinking: Preparation for a supposed apocalypse or cataclysmic event is a major characteristic of many cults, especially cult religions.
  • Time and energy: Followers are expected to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy (and often money) to the cult to the exclusion of their own lives, interests, jobs, and families.

There are many misconceptions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although everyone is entitled to their own opinion of AA and how it functions, it is important to highlight the most common elements which are up for debate, especially when comparing AA to a cult.

Some ‘outsiders’ who are not familiar with AA may not understand the philosophy behind it. It could be viewed as a cult due to having to change an individual’s mindset about their way of life. While they have to conform to the programme, for members this is just a way in which they are able to control their addiction. Rather than it being a ‘cult like’ mentality, it is a coping strategy. In fact, most AA members attend meetings for a minimum of three years after initially joining the programme.

AA is based around the concept of recovery from a persisting, chronic illness. It includes the philosophy elements of belief that everyone has the potential to recover and the inherent ability to lead a satisfying, useful life.

Another cult comparison is AA’s tendency to discourage personal identity and the need to challenge traditional 12-step thinking. Individuals are asked to come to terms with their faults, work on “character defects” and relive addiction-related problems. This highlight on personal failures tends to reinforce negative self-image. However, those who are pro-AA subscribe to the idea that working on personal issues is just another way to work toward bettering oneself. Self-examination and a sense of collective consciousness can improve the quality of bonding within the group.

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There are so many unanswered questions that you may be curious about! For more information on this topic read our part 2 of 'Cult or Cure?'