Posts Tagged ‘12 Steps’

A few years ago Sharp and Pointed posted “AA Is Religious Not Spiritual” in two parts. That was a bit inconvenient for readers, so here’s the text in full.

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Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover

by Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?

AA’s Religious Origins

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) routinely assert that AA is “spiritual, not religious,” though even a cursory glance at AA’s practices and official (“conference approved”) literature reveals the opposite to be true.

One of the most widespread myths about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is that it has existed as an independent organization from day one, from the day in 1935 that Bill Wilson met AA’s other co-founder, Bob Smith, in Akron, Ohio. When they met, Smith and Wilson were both members of a Protestant evangelical group called the Oxford Group Movement (OGM), or more simply the Oxford Groups.

The Oxford Groups — which had nothing to do with Oxford University, nor the city of Oxford; they merely traded on the name — were founded in the 1920s by the Reverend Frank N. D. Buchman, notable for his lavish lifestyle, entirely financed by his followers; his right-wing views (in 1936 he described Heinrich Himmler as “a great lad”); his virulent prudery and homophobia; and his targeting of the rich, powerful, and prominent for recruitment. Smith and Wilson evidently found all this attractive, as they were both enthusiastic OGM members.

Convinced that Oxford Group principles were the key to overcoming alcohol abuse (and all other problems in life), they devoted themselves to carrying the Oxford Group message to other alcoholics. What they called the “alcoholic squadron of the Akron Oxford Group” remained as part of the Oxford Group Movement until 1939, and the group Bill Wilson founded in New York remained part of the Oxford Group Movement until late 1937.

The reasons that AA parted ways with the Oxford Group Movement had nothing to do with differences over ideology; rather, they had to do with personality conflicts, the fear that Catholics would be forbidden to join what was to become AA as long as it was part of a Protestant organization, and, quite possibly, embarrassment over OGM founder Frank Buchman’s statements in an August 26, 1936 New York World Telegram interview in which he said, “Thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler,” and in which he pined for “a God-controlled Fascist dictatorship.” This was a possible contributing factor to the split of what was to become AA from the Oxford Groups, though it was over a year before the New York group severed formal ties to the OGM, and approximately three years until the Akron group did so. (It’s worth mentioning as an aside that the manner in which AA treats this interview in its “conference approved” Wilson biography, Pass It On, is blatantly dishonest.)

One reason that this link between AA and the Oxford Group Movement is not more widely known is that during the years following the adoption of the name Alcoholics Anonymous, AA never credited the Oxford Group Movement for anything — even though AA took its central beliefs, program, and practices almost unaltered from the OGM. For instance, there is not a single acknowledgment of the Oxford Groups in Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s “Big Book.” It wasn’t until the late 1950s, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, that Bill Wilson and AA (partially) acknowledged AA’s debt to the Oxford Groups. Even today, most AA members know little if anything about the AA/OGM connection.

The Origin of the 12 Steps

Here are the steps, the backbone of the AA “program,” taken directly from AA’s “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

A common myth — even within AA — is that AA co-founder Bill Wilson wrote the 12 steps entirely independently, that they were completely his own invention. A closely related myth common in AA is that Bill Wilson wrote the 12 steps directly under divine guidance. Neither myth has any but the scantiest relation to reality.

The author of AA’s 12 steps and the text portion of AA’s bible, the “Big Book” (though not the personal stories in it), Bill Wilson, was a dedicated Oxford Group member who was convinced that the principles of the Oxford Group Movement were the only route to recovery for alcoholics, and the 12 steps he included in the “Big Book” are a direct codification of those principles. Indeed, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Wilson directly credits the OGM as being the source of the teachings codified in the 12 steps (pp. 58-63, 160-167). Further, in a letter to former OGM American leader Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Wilson stated:

The Twelve Steps of A.A. simply represented an attempt to state in more detail, breath, and depth, what we had been taught–primarily by you [Rev. Shoemaker]. Without this, there could have been nothing–nothing at all. (quoted by Dick B. in Design for Living: The Oxford Groups contribution to Early A.A., p. 10)

Wilson also stated publicly:

Where did early A.A.’s … learn about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning our wills and lives over to God? Where did we learn about meditation and prayer and all the rest of it? … [S]traight from Dr. Bob’s and my own early association with the Oxford Groups … (quoted in the AA publication, The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings, p. 198)

To be more specific, the Oxford Group principles of personal powerlessness and the necessity of divine guidance are codified in steps 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 11. the principle of confession is embodied in steps 4, 5, and 10. The principle of restitution to those one has harmed is embodied in steps 8 and 9. And the principle of continuance is embodied in steps 10 and 12.

There is not a single original concept in the 12 steps. They all came directly from the Protestant evangelical Oxford Group Movement. (see Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pp. 48 & 97)

It’s noteworthy that alcohol is mentioned only in the first step, which strongly implies that alcoholics cannot overcome their problems on their own. The remainder of the steps implore alcohol abusers to engage in religious activities (prayer, confession) and to “turn [their] lives and [their] wills over to the care of God.”

Alcoholics Anonymous and 12 Steps and 12 Traditions

Much of the rest of the “Big Book” is just as religious, if not more so, than the 12 steps. In his comments immediately preceding the steps, Bill Wilson exhorts the reader: “Remember that we deal with alcohol — cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power–that one is God May you find Him now!” (p. 58) Wilson also devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 4: “We Agnostics”) to attacking atheists and agnostics as “prejudice[d]” or crazy, and to presenting belief in God as the only way to restore “sanity.” Wilson also recommends that AA members “work” the seventh step through prayer, and even provides the wording for a prayer to “My Creator.” (p. 76) It’s also worth noting that the “Big Book” is saturated with religious terms. There are well over 200 references to God, capitalized masculine pronouns that refer to God (“He,” “Him”), or synonyms for God (“Creator,” “Father,” etc.) in its 164 pages of text — and this doesn’t even take into account such terms in the personal stories that make up the bulk of the book.

AA’s second — and second most important –book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, also written by Wilson, is just as religious as the “Big Book.” For instance, the nine pages devoted to “working” step 2 contain at least 30 references to God, synonyms for it, or capitalized masculine pronouns referring to it.

Wilson also repeatedly exhorts the reader to pray, noting in one place that “Those of us who have come to make regular use of prayer would no more do without it than we would refuse air, food, or sunshine.” (p. 97)

And in his discussion of step 4, making “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” Wilson makes a truly extraordinary recommendation: that the list of one’s “moral defects” be based on “a universally recognized list of major human failings–the Seven Deadly Sins [!] of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.” (p. 48) Contrary to Wilson’s assertion, these are not “a universally recognized list of major human failings”; rather, they are a specifically Christian list of sins enumerated by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century. (Even ignoring its origin, one wonders why this “universally recognized list” would omit such obvious “defects” as cruelty, hypocrisy, intrusiveness, exploitation of others, and sanctimoniousness.) That Wilson would make such an extraordinary recommendation underlines the Christian origins and orientation of AA and its “program.”

Common AA Practices

As for AA’s practices, most meetings open with a prayer to God, the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Most meetings also feature reading (and often discussion) of the 12 steps, with their exhortations to pray and to turn one’s life and will over to God. And most AA meetings close with the reading of a specifically Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer.

AA and the Establishment Clause

Indeed, the religious nature of AA and its “program” is so obvious that three federal courts of appeal (the 2nd, 7th, and 9th circuit courts–the next level down from the Supreme Court), two state supreme courts (Tennessee and New York), and nine federal district courts have ruled that government-coerced attendance at AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous — a clone of AA) is unconstitutional in that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because AA is religious in nature. (There have been no contrary rulings on the appeal level, but unfortunately there is no national binding precedent because the Supreme Court has refused to hear appeals of any of these rulings. Without this binding precedent, government-coerced AA and NA attendance continues on a piecemeal basis across the country.)

Given all this, it seems amazing that AA members routinely and vehemently assert that AA is “spiritual, not religious.” There are two primary reasons that they do this. The first is that AA is a very anti-intellectual organization, in which honest questions and skeptical attitudes are viewed as “disease symptoms,” and in which great emphasis is placed upon unquestioning acceptance of revealed wisdom. Three of the most common AA slogans embody this anti-intellectual attitude: “Utilize, don’t analyze,” “Let go and let God,” and “Your best thinking got you here.” So, in a milieu which demands blind acceptance and denigrates critical thought, AA members hear that AA is “spiritual, not religious” and repeat it like parrots (which is unfair to parrots).

AA members who own treatment facilities or work in them have an additional incentive to repeat the “spiritual, not religious” mantra: money. In 1990, over 93 percent of treatment facilities in the United States were 12-step facilities, and treatment was a $10-billion-a-year industry. Very probably even more money is at stake today. If 12-steppers who own or work in treatment facilities would honestly admit that their approach is religious in nature, that river of government and insurance-industry cash would dry up in short order.

Ultimately, one must ask that if a program based on faith in God and on prayer to “Him” isn’t religious, what is?

AA and Spirituality

One might also ask what’s spiritual about encouraging blind acceptance? What’s spiritual about discouraging critical thinking? What’s spiritual about disparaging those who ask honest questions? What’s spiritual about encouraging people to identify with destructive past behaviors? What’s spiritual about telling people that they’re “diseased” for life? “What’s spiritual about telling people that they’re “powerless” to solve their own problems? What’s “spiritual” about inculcating dependency? What’s spiritual about issuing destructive, self-fulfilling prophecies? What’s spiritual about telling vulnerable people that their only alternatives to AA are “jails, institutions, or death”?

These are things religions do. As for AA:

  • Blind acceptance? Check.
  • Discouragement of critical thinking? Check.
  • Ostracism of doubters (“heretics”)? Check.
  • Identification of self with sins (past behaviors)? Check.
  • Diseased (“sinful”) members? Check.
  • Personal powerlessness? Check.
  • Dependence on an institution for salvation? Check.
  • Fear-mongering about an inevitable downward spiral if one abandons the institution and its teachings? Check.


It’s time for some honesty. It’s time for AA to admit it’s religious, not spiritual.

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Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover

by Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?

There are direct connections between the beliefs underlying Alcoholic Anonymous and those underlying the “war on drugs.” The most fundamental is that alcohol and other drugs are “cunning, baffling, powerful!” (to quote AA’s  “Big Book”) This belief is reflected in the common “drug war” term “dangerous drugs” in reference to illegal drugs, which combined, until recently, to kill about 5% of the roughly half-million Americans killed annually by tobacco and alcohol; today, about 50,000 are killed annually by overdoses, the vast majority by opioid overdoses. In other words, alcohol (roughly 100,000 deaths) and tobacco (roughly 400,000 deaths) kill ten times as many Americans as all illegal (and misdirected pharmaceutical) drugs combined.

To put this in further perspective, “drug warriors” almost never refer to alcohol and tobacco as “dangerous drugs,” while they do routinely refer to marijuana, which has never killed a soul, as a “dangerous drug.” Some of them might actually believe that it is.

The concomitant belief, that human beings are “powerless” over “cunning, baffling, powerful!” drugs, is shared by both AA and drug prohibitionists. In AA and its clones (NA, CA, etc.) that belief is enshrined in the first of the 12 steps. It’s also part of the bedrock of the “drug war”: if people are powerless and drugs are powerful, the only way to stop the harm of drug addiction is to cut off the supply of drugs.

The other underlying “drug war” belief is based in punitive Christian morality: the belief that the only way to deal with prohibited (sinful) behavior is through punitive measures–in the case of drugs, that it’s necessary to lock people in cages for using drugs and for making drugs available to others.

Another aspect of this belief system, common to both AA and the “drug war,”  is the belief that drug use and abuse are an individual matter, that individual drug users and abusers are either victims of a “disease” (according to AA — never mind the absurdity of labeling behaviors as “diseases”) or are criminals (according to “drug warriors”). What ties these two seemingly disparate beliefs together is that they both divorce drug use and abuse from their social and economic contexts.

A moment’s reflection shows that this is an absurd approach. If drug use and abuse were entirely the result of individual immorality or individual powerlessness over drugs,  the rates of drug use and abuse would not vary drastically (if at all) from one nation to another, nor would the rates vary wildly within nations over the years. But they do. Neither “disease” advocates nor “drug warriors” can explain these variances. To explain them, you need to consider social and economic contexts.

A case in point is a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton on the increased mortality rate among middle-aged white, especially male, Americans aged 45 to 54 from 1998 to 2015, with the increase being .5% per year. During the previous two decades, 1978 to 1998, the mortality in that age range had been decreasing by about 2% per year–as indeed it’s continued to do so in all of the other developed countries since 1998. Why? The researchers posit that, while there’s no definitive proof, these increases are likely due to an increased suicide rate and increased drug and alcohol abuse triggered at least in part by increased financial stress.

If 12-step advocates and drug prohibitionists were correct that the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs is a result only of individual “disease” or inherent “criminal” (sinful) tendencies, this increase in drug and alcohol abuse would not have happened. But it did. The solution advanced by 12-step advocates is treatment, and by “drug warriors” is a combination of imprisonment and treatment. In both cases, the treatment offered is almost exclusively 12-step treatment, which does not consider social or economic contexts nor social or economic solutions, but rather focuses exclusively on individual “wrongs,” “shortcomings,” and “defects of character” (respectively, steps  5, 7, and 6), with the solution to alcohol/drug abuse being “prayer” (step 11), taking a “moral inventory” (step 4), and “turn[ing] our will and our lives over to the care of God” (step 3).

As one would expect, the 12-step religious program does not work very well. As covered in  a previous post, Alcoholics Anonymous is not effective, both AA’s own statistics (“Comments on AA’s Triennial Surveys”) and controlled studies report that the recovery rate in AA is no better than the rate of spontaneous remission, about 5% annually. Controlled studies of formal 12-step treatment have been even more dismal, with some components used in such treatment, e.g. confrontational “counseling,” having negative outcomes.

So, what do AA advocates and “drug warriors” lean on for scientific support?

One of the standard studies cited — quite possibly the most commonly cited — by 12-step advocates and prohibitionists was conducted in the 1960s. It involved placing rats in Skinner boxes (small boxes with no toys or other amenities–essentially solitary confinement for rats in an ultra-deprived environment) and then giving the rats the choice of either plain water to drink or water laced with morphine. Surprise, surprise — the rats chose the water with morphine. This study was widely cited by both drug prohibitionists and the mass media as “proof” that rats, and by extension people, are powerless over irresistible drugs.

In the 1970s, researchers at Simon Fraser University conducted a similar study, but with the rats in a much larger cage filled “with things that rats like, such as platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, and running wheels for exercise. Naturally we included lots of rats of both sexes, and naturally the place soon was teeming with babies. The rats loved it and we loved it too, so we called it ‘Rat Park.'” The results? The Rat Park experiment showed that in this rich environment the rats ignored the morphine-laced water and drank plain water instead. The initial study was published in 1978 in the scientific  journal Psychophramacology. The mass media, government, and disease-concept advocates ignored it, and AA, 12-step treatment, and the “war on drugs” rolled on, leaving millions of ruined lives in their wake.

The lessons of all this are obvious: It’s time to stop blaming those who are self-medicating, and to stop looking at drug use, abuse, and addiction as the result of individual sinfulness or “disease.” It’s time to stop locking people in cages.

It is time to start looking at, and addressing, the environmental, economic, and social reasons why millions of people find life so intolerable that they — like rats in a deprived environment — feel the need to seek solace in illegal drugs, alcohol, and misdirected pharmaceutical drugs. And it’s long past time to start doing something about the environmental, economic, and social reasons for drug use, abuse, and addiction.

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For more information on Rat Park, see lead researcher Bruce K. Alexander’s 2010 book, The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. 

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Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is, arguably, America’s most sacrosanct institution. Its promoters (often AA members hiding behind “anonymity” while they promote AA) present it as an unalloyed good: effective, “spiritual not religious,” supportive, nonjudgmental, purely voluntary, based on “attraction not promotion,” and leading to personal growth (being “better than well”). Some even state that AA has no negative aspects whatsoever and that AA with it’s 12-step approach is the only effective approach to addictions problems.

All of this is wrong. The rate of recovery via AA is no greater than the rate of spontaneous remission. AA was part of a Protestant evangelical group for the first several years of its existence, and its 12-step program is blatantly religious by any reasonable definition of the word. AA is supportive–as long as you parrot its party line. It’s nonjudgmental–again, as long as you parrot the party line. AA is not purely voluntary; over a million Americans per year are coerced into attending it via court orders and employee assistance programs, as a condition of avoiding jail or keeping their jobs; and many of AA’s promoters insist that AA doesn’t promote itself, even as they do exactly that. As for AA members being “better than well,” attend any meeting and see for yourself. And AA does have serious negative aspects, both for its members and those merely exposed to it.

Let’s first look at the harm AA does to its members, those who come to it voluntarily for help, and those who are coerced into attending it.

Even for the small percentage of attendees for whom AA “works” (approximately 5% according to AA’s own triennial surveys–roughly the same as the rate of spontaneous remission), there are negative effects. The first of these is that many AA members adopt “alcoholic” as their primary identity. They identify their very beings with a past, self-destructive behavior. They stay stuck–focused on the past. It’s both strange and sad to see someone who hasn’t drank for twenty years identify him or herself as an “alcoholic.”

(What would we think of someone who gave up cigarettes twenty years ago, yet still identifies him or herself as a “smoker”? The only reason it doesn’t strike us as equally bizarre for long-time nondrinkers to identify themselves as “alcoholics” is the constant self-referential use of that term by AA members. Endless repetition desensitizes us to the  strangeness of this very odd usage.)

Another negative aspect of AA is that it keeps members dependent upon it. According to 12-step dogma, “alcoholics” are always “recovering,” and that the only way they can maintain sobriety is to attend AA for the rest of their lives. The way my late friend Vince Fox defined alcoholism and 12-step alcoholism treatment neatly encapsulates the 12-step approach: “Alcoholism is a phenomenon characterized as physical, mental, and emotional, and treated in medical settings by nonmedical personnel with a religious program in which the patient is admitted as diseased, discharged as diseased, permanently recovering, and never recovered.”

So, AA members consider themselves “diseased,” adopt the “alcoholic” label as their identity, and (at least in theory) remain dependent upon AA for life. Many “old timers,” who have been sober for twenty or thirty years, still go to several meetings per week, some daily. This, of course, is a severe time drain. The amount of time wasted by American AA members on AA meetings is probably second only to the amount of time wasted in the U.S. by Mormons–in another lifelong “program”–on LDS meetings.

Another major downside of AA for its longtime members, those who come to it for help, and those coerced into attendance, is AA’s insistence that “alcoholism” is a “progressive disease,” that drinking inevitably worsens barring abstinence, and that “alcoholics” have no control once they start drinking–that their only alternatives to AA are “jails, institutions, or death.” Leaving aside the absurdity of labeling a behavior as a disease, all of this is simply wrong. But for those who buy the assertions that drinking inevitably worsens and that they have no control, the results can be disastrous. These pernicious assertions often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other AA assertions–notably that, according to AA’s “Big Book,” alcohol is “cunning, baffling, powerful!” and individuals “powerless”–only exacerbate this problem. So, when AA members start to drink, they think they have no control, so they don’t even try to control their drinking–they binge.

Research seems to bear this out. What is still probably the best scientific study of AA’s effectiveness (Outpatient Treatment of Alcoholism, by Jeffrey Brandsma, Maxie Maultsby, and Richard J. Walsh, Baltimore: University Park Press, 1980) reported that those assigned to the AA group (with its “one drink, one drunk” dogma) binged more than four times as often as the no-treatment controls.

As well, since AA meetings are so unattractive that only (again according to AA’s own triennial surveys) five percent of those who “walk through the door” are there a year later, millions of people have been exposed to AA’s pernicious assertions and, at least in some cases, their drinking likely worsened as a result–and many undoubtedly don’t even try to find alternatives, because of AA members’ insistence that AA is the only thing that works.

These are only the most obvious negative effects of AA upon those exposed to it.

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