by Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?
We’ve seen previously that Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t work, that both AA’s own figures and controlled studies show that the rate of recovery via AA is no higher than the rate of spontaneous recovery (that is, recovery with no outside help). But that begs the question, “Are the people who recover via AA the same people who would recover on their own?”
There’s no way to prove it, yet, but one suspects that the answer is “in part.” It seems likely that AA, with its overtly religious (dishonestly labeled “spiritual”) program is more fitted to the already religious than to the irreligious, that AA might be helpful to the religious but harmful to nonbelievers. Why? Religious believers are already comfortable with prayers to God, attendance at religious meetings, dogmatism, and a moralistic approach to personal problems. So, it seems probable that AA’s religious “program” is well suited to them, and that they’ll benefit from the social aspects of AA meetings and the mutual support of fellow believers.
It’s a very different story for the irreligious. At AA meetings they’ll hear that they’re “powerless” (step 1), that their problems with alcohol are entirely the result of their “shortcomings” and “defects of character” (steps 7 & 6), that they’re insane (step 2), that they need to make a “moral inventory” (step 4), that they need to pray (step 11), and that they need to turn their “will and [their] lives” over to God (step 3). They’re also told that blind acceptance is good, in fact absolutely necessary to recovery, and that critical thinking is bad, a “disease” symptom. This attitude is encapsulated in the very common AA slogans, “Utilize, don’t analyze” and “Your best thinking got you here.”
Needless to say, all this is a very bitter pill for the irreligious. What makes it far worse is that at virtually every AA meeting they’ll be exposed to harmful 12-step dogma, asserted as fact. The most harmful AA dogmas are that once an “alcoholic” takes a single drink he or she will inevitably get drunk, that “alcoholism” is invariably progressive, and that AA is the only route to overcoming alcohol problems. Again, very common AA epigrams encapsulate these dogmas: “One drink, one drunk” and the only alternative to AA is “jails, institutions, or death.” You’ll even hear these slogans at the rare meetings for AA’s second-class citizens, at “atheists and agnostics” meetings.
All too many people hear these demonstrably false assertions at AA meetings and believe them. This is tremendously discouraging for those who can’t stomach AA’s religioisity, anti-intellectualism, and dogmatism. Unfortunately, it seems that AA’s false assertions in all too many cases become self-fulfilling prophecies.
So, AA is probably helpful to at least some religious people, and is probably harmful to irreligious people who are exposed to to it. Ninety-five percent of people who walk through AA’s “revolving door” (as AA members themselves put it) are gone within a year, so huge numbers of people are exposed to AA’s harmful dogmas.
Clearly, there’s a need for alternatives to AA. Fortunately, there are several; the most widespread are listed here in alphabetical order. All are abstinence programs except Moderation Management, which is for those who want to moderate their drinking rather than quit entirely.
- LifeRing Secular Recovery
- Moderation Management
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety
- SMART Recovery
- Women for Sobriety
Finally, self-recovery without formal treatment or participation in any self-help group is quite common. In fact, most people who have alcohol problems eventually overcome them without participation in AA or nonreligious self-help groups.
If you come away with nothing else from this post, please realize that you are not powerless, that alcohol abuse is not a “progressive disease,” that a single drink does not trigger an inevitable drunk, and that you can overcome your alcohol problems–with or without help–if you work at it.