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Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Type of Cult?

Alcoholics Anonymous has helped countless people break away from alcohol abuse. The group has many prominent supporters in the recovery community, but plenty of people are less flattering about the group. A frequent accusation made by detractors of AA is that it shares many similarities with a cult.

What is a Cult?

The word 'cult' was originally used to refer to groups of people who worshiped a deity; for example, all of the early Christians would have been considered as belonging to a cult. These days the term tends to be used negatively and when many think of a cult, they will usually think of suicide cults like the People's Temple. This type of dangerous cult displays a number of characteristics, such as:

  • unquestioning devotion to a leader
  • members of the group develop an 'us versus them' mentality - they begin to believe that people outside of their group are dangerous
  • those who belong to the group are expected to avoid individuals who are not part of this group unless they are trying to convert them
  • members believe that there can be no real life outside of the group
  • the leader is allowed to do whatever they want as there is no higher authority to keep them accountable
  • the members of the cult are able to justify unethical behaviour because they believe it is for the good of the group
  •  members of the cult are expected to devote a lot of their time and energy to the cause
  • brainwashing techniques such as sleep deprivation and 'love bombing' are often used to recruit new members
  • the leader may use guilt and shame to control the members of the cult
  • a good deal of time may be devoted to raising money for the group and recruiting new members
  • questioning the leader or having doubts about the teachings are strongly discouraged; such behaviour may even be punished
  • there is likely to be strict rules about how people behave.
Evidence that Alcoholics Anonymous is a Cult

AA certainly doesn't seem to have many of the characteristics associated with a dangerous cult. There is no leader and there is no real obligation on those who want to attend meetings to follow the 12-Step Program. The reason the cult accusation tends to be made usually refers to criticisms of the group such as:

  • some members of AA refer to the big book as if it were a sacred text that should never be questioned
  • new members are encouraged to attend ninety meetings in ninety days; this could be considered an attempt at brainwashing
  • there can be pressure put on people to conform to the program and this pressure tends to come from the more zealot members
  • if people relapse, they often lose contact with members of the fellowship
  • people in the meetings do often exhibit an 'us versus them' attitude, referring to alcoholics as a special group in society
  • some members try to portray AA as the only real solution to alcoholism
  • members are encouraged to spend time with other members of the group
  • it is usual to hear members predicting relapse for anyone who leaves the group
  • some meetings are closed to the general public.
Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Cult?

There is no doubt that there are members of AA that can be a bit overzealous in their promotion of the fellowship, but is very misleading to describe the group as a cult. There is no obligation to believe in anything or do anything; the program is based on suggestions of what has worked for other people. It is also possible to openly challenge the teachings of AA at the meetings, which is something that frequently happens. The fact that this fellowship has such a high turnover of members also makes it an unlikely candidate for any type of brainwashing cult.

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