Is AA a Cult, or a Culture?

satanic-cults1Our friend Jennifer Matesa has a great new post on the question of whether AA is a cult.

“The Atlantic Group didn’t resonate with me. It’s like bars—it’s like drinking culture,” she said. “You can find the culture that works for you. Before I got sober, I didn’t like Manhattan drinking culture anymore, so I moved to Brooklyn.” (And had “Brooklyn drinking culture” managed to “work” for her any differently from Manhattan’s? “I could wear a plaid shirt,” she said, cocking a grin. “I couldn’t do that in Manhattan—not in the Meatpacking District clubs I was going to.”)

So is AA a cult or a culture?—I’d already been thinking about this question before Sophia made this remark.

My app, at 129 megabytes, is the heftiest one on my phone, and I use it with impunity, even during meetings, when, I figure, people probably think I’m checking my Facebook page, and when, it has been “suggested,” I shut my phone off and stow it below my seat cushion for the duration of the flight. (Nobody kicked me out of the meeting or otherwise traumatized me that day for daring to break the suggestion.)

Cult and culture share the Latin root colere, which means to take care of and make grow. Culture, the much older word, hung onto this meaning and led to the word cultivate, while cult was coined in the 1800s to denote extreme forms of worship.

At the same time, with the scientific revolution, the word culture was appropriated to refer to the material that scientists use to grow samples in Petri dishes. And that’s how I think of 12-step groups: samples, cultures, growing in a big worldwide Petri dish.

Some sections are healthier than others.

It reminds me of Roger Ebert’s post from years ago:

The God word. The critics never quote the words “as we understood God.” Nobody in A.A. cares how you understand him, and would never tell you how you should understand him. I went to a few meetings of “4A” (“Alcoholics and Agnostics in A.A.”), but they spent too much time talking about God. The important thing is not how you define a Higher Power. The important thing is that you don’t consider yourself to be your own Higher Power, because your own best thinking found your bottom for you. One sweet lady said her higher power was a radiator in the Mustard Seed, “because when I see it, I know I’m sober.”

Sober. A.A. believes there is an enormous difference between bring dry and being sober. It is not enough to simply abstain. You need to heal and repair the damage to yourself and others. We talk about “white-knuckle sobriety,” which might mean, “I’m sober as long as I hold onto the arms of this chair.” People who are dry but not sober are on a “dry drunk.”

A “cult?” How can that be, when it’s free, nobody profits and nobody is in charge? A.A. is an oral tradition reaching back to that first meeting between Bill W. and Doctor Bob in the lobby of an Akron hotel. They’d tried psychiatry, the church, the Cure. Maybe, they thought, drunks can help each other, and pass it along. A.A. has spread to every continent and into countless languages, and remains essentially invisible. I was dumbfounded to discover there was a meeting all along right down the hall from my desk.

via Is AA a Cult, or a Culture? | The Fix.

4 thoughts on “Is AA a Cult, or a Culture?

  1. I would not class it as an out and out cult, but there are certainly some sick groups that cause people a lot of damage with their anti medication stance etc. talks about such sites and the way that some fanatical members influence other meetings. I did not find that AA was a great solution and have moved on to non faith based recovery.


    AA is definitely an insidious cult today, although their original 1940s path was the best psychoanalysis for overcoming upsets and resentments—our unmanageability:
    To understand how & why the original AA path got garbled, you might want to read my blogs: and
    Cheer up friends. Let us stop arguing about what has already happened, and begin helping the suffering alcoholics, and addicts, with the original AA Path. AND, ALL WILL BE WELL.


  3. I have heard many terrible accounts of cultish behavior by some AA groups, and some other 12-Step groups. However, I have been to meetings of many locally that aren’t at all like that. In the AA group I like best right now (not my actual home group), several of us told a skeptical newcomer that he might be right — maybe another program would be better for him. Some members I know use more than one method of recovery at a time, and some of my stepper friends have mentioned that they know some addicts can recover alone. The average member is on some kind of medication from what I’ve heard, and the typical 7th Tradition basket ends up with a couple of bucks and a few dimes and quarters in it, out of ten or twelve people, and some come up empty. The abuses of past decades seem to be getting addressed and corrected quickly these days, especially 13th stepping and yelling at newcomers– I don’t think I know many who would tolerate that now.
    Almost any program will work if you work it. The key to early recovery is knowing people who have been there and believe you can do it, and the key to late recovery is to remember what you’ve overcome, which is easier if you’re helping newcomers. The other key to recovery, regardless of time, is emotional development. Addicts are people who were moody, stressed or restless to begin with, then lost some developmental time while using (drinking is a type of using). To be able to be happy for long while in reality requires learning to see reality as something you can cope with. The steps, properly interpreted, are a way of getting caught up on that development. They’re not magic.


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