by Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?
AA is arguably America’s most sacred cow, and has been almost since it first came to public notice prior to World War II. During the more than three-quarters of a century since then, while the country was inundated in pro-AA books and newspaper and magazine articles, entire decades went by without publication of a single book critical of AA, or a single critical article in a major periodical. This has changed a bit in recent years, but public criticism of AA is still relatively rare.
AA presents alcohol abuse as an entirely personal problem, and preaches that AA always “works if you work it.” If someone goes to AA and it doesn’t work for them, they tend not to talk about it, because of the stigma attached to alcohol abuse and because they probably do believe what they heard in AA–that their problems are entirely their fault. So, they don’t talk about AA.
And there are a lot of such people: well over a million Americans are either attracted to AA or are coerced into attendance annually, and then leave almost immediately. (According to its own figures, AA’s membership has been nearly static over the last two decades, with a growth rate considerably under 1% per year.)
But you don’t hear from those repelled by AA. Rather, you hear from and about the relatively few AA successes (roughly 5% according to AA’s triennial surveys). And because AA is a “program for life,” those few successes stick around to trumpet AA as “spiritual, not religious” (though it clearly is religious, as several federal courts of appeal have ruled), and as the only approach to alcohol abuse that works (though it clearly doesn’t work–its success rate is about that of spontaneous remission).
Those AA successes also tend to be the owners/operators of almost all alcohol abuse treatment facilities in the United States. They then use their position as “experts” to promote AA and its “program.” They also found “public health” 12-step front groups, notably the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), to lend a scientific sheen to their promotion of AA. (The NCADD is hostile to scientifically based treatment methods with good evidence of efficacy.)
Given all this, it’s not surprising that there’s so little critical examination of AA in the corporate media. Reporters are often overworked, and sometimes lazy, so they tend to take the easy way out and report as fact the claims of 12-stepping “experts,” while doing no investigation of those claims. Beyond that, there are many 12-steppers and relatives of 12-steppers in the media who openly promote AA and attack its critics while concealing their connections to AA. (One can’t “break anonymity,” of course.)
(Even some of those from whom you’d expect better fall into this category. About fifteen years ago Bill Moyers [who has a 12-stepping son] produced Close to Home: Moyers on Addiction about alcohol abuse and alcohol treatment. It was a love letter to AA and one of the most dishonest pieces of reporting I’ve ever seen.)
So, the next time you see a glowing article on AA, or an interview with a gushing “recovering” celebrity, don’t be surprised. Just be aware that the claims of AA’s promoters are just that–claims. AA is religious, not spiritual. And its success rate is no better than the rate of spontaneous recovery–that is, AA is utterly ineffective. Not that you’ll hear much about that in the media.
- Alcoholics Anonymous does more Harm than Good
- Alternatives to AA — and Why They’re Needed
- Alcoholics Anonymous is not Effective
- Alcoholics Anonymous is Religious, not Spiritual (part 1)
- Alcoholics Anonymous is Religious, not Spiritual (part 2)