The Real AA

Unless you have had a problem with addiction or have an interest in psychology, this post may have a limited appeal.  I will show how a 12-step program can be explained without an appeal to the divine, while the next post will explore the group dynamic in detail.


I have been wanting to do this for a while as my family has had its challenges with addiction.  And what better place to debunk than here at freethought blogs.  If you have had the opportunity (i) to experience a 12-step program, it becomes obvious that this is a cult [ii].

This is not unique to AA since whenever a group forms with a shared vision, there are social norms to be followed but not questioned.  I pity an atheist as a group member though since one obvious agenda of the creators is to get you closer to God.

I want to criticize the dogmatic nature of the group and explore how it may actually work.  From a naturalistic standpoint, there is no mysterious force that helps people stay clean and sober, and we know that a “spiritual awakening” is not a miracle but a change in attitude.

How Effective Is It?

We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater because the 12-Step approach to recovering from substance or alcohol abuse can be effective.  An analysis of over 27 randomized controlled studies concludes that 42% of 10,565 participants of a 12-step approach will remain abstinent for a period of 1-year or more whereas only 35% would remain abstinent through other approaches [1].

Being addicted to substances is usually far worse than the effects of endorsing any of the problematic aspects of the AA ideology.  Until something much better comes along, AA may represent the only hope for some. [4]

The principles of cognitive-behavioral theory explain most of how the program works although no one knows exactly how any particular individual stays clean and sober.  Members that are ideological about AA will no doubt have a problem with explaining how it works because they read their literature as a fundamentalist Christian would read scripture: inerrant, always relevant, cryptic, and divinely inspired [2].

How It Really Works

This program has been looked at by many practitioners, and so I have provided one possible interpretation of how it may work.  There are other interesting areas to explore for instance the idea that having a “higher power” may provide benefits.  Of course, believing that there is something greater than you for comfort (akin to an attachment figure like a “Father”) can provide benefits without being true.


CBT Translation

Click on the figure to see in detail.


i) I use the word opportunity not out of sarcasm but irony—that is, for most members, the program offers them a complete change in perspective on life by developing moral consciousness.  This new consciousness demand that members drop judgments of others and look at the similarities in one another, not the differences.  In a nutshell, that is the spiritual awakening that they speak of.

ii) For some, it may not seem fair to label AA as a cult but that is the impression that is given off to outsiders.  A cult is never our group (orthodoxy) and always another group.  In other words, the word cult is a way to disparage another group.  But I use the word cult here in the sense that leaders and beliefs are often followed, not questioned, and admired to an unwarranted degree.



[2] Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.




  1. Katydid says

    You just gave me something to think about. To develop a conscience…yes! One feature of addicts is their unrelenting selfishness and narcissism. Their addiction comes first. I have to admit my only knowledge of AA comes from the tv show Mom, where the majority of the characters are recovering addicts who spend time at their AA meetings, which are featured in every episode. The show just wrapped up its however-many seasons and the very last episode highlighted the progress the main character had made in considering others’ feelings and not hurting other people emotionally. One of the newcomer members said something about miracles will happen. That’s very Christianist.

    The tv show really didn’t make a point about belief in any gods, but I understand one of the steps of AA is to acknowledge a “higher power” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink–talking about the Christian god here).

    • musing says

      That’s a good thing, right?

      I agree to a certain extent with what you are saying, but addiction should more be thought of as pseudo-selfishness or self-destructiveness than selfishness [4].

      I’ll have more to say on selfishness in the next post. Thanks for the comment.

  2. says

    I think the “psychology behind it” is a case of cramming meaning/utility into something that, let’s face it, has absolutely nothing backing it. “Well… this is similar to CBT, so it’s obviously based in CBT” means nothing when CBT hadn’t even been thought up. AA started as, and continues to be, a religious movement. Dare I say it, a cult.

    • musing says

      I haven’t exhausted all of the studies on it, but it is possible that their intuition about addiction was accurate. But if you take the time to pick the tenets apart, you will see that there is not much to it. I think what is helping people stay sober is the fear of judgment from other members should they relapse, which is ironic since members are taught to not judge as they are the ones to be condemned. There are tons of paradoxes and irony in the writings of the founders that I will share in the next post. But I agree that it is in many ways like a cult. The idea of worshipping something greater than ourselves doesn’t bother me too much. It’s the idea that they blindly worship and follow the literature that they are given that gets to me. Picking apart something that is suppose to be divine-like is forbidden.

  3. John Morales says

    I’d get kicked out of such a group, since I’d be too disruptive.

    (So I have no fear of it)

  4. Sam N says

    Eh. I’ve found AA can be useful. It is a subculture that view alcohol negatively instead of positively. Adopting certain aspects of that subculture can be useful, spending time in it can be useful, even if my higher power is cooperation (me and others is more powerful than me alone), or that I’ve never seriously followed the 12 steps and would seriously remake them if I were to.

    It also is by far the largest organized subculture that views alcohol negatively. So if you’re looking for a group of people to meet to help adopt that value, good luck finding another program that does so in such an organized manner.

    I’m not saying there’s nothing to critique. Just that it is useful, and it is not very hard to find nondogmatic groups in large cities.

    I also take some issue with calling it a cult in that it has never discouraged me from hanging out with friends or family. Only in settings that include the use of alcohol. Now if all of your friends and family constantly drink alcohol that could I suppose be cult-like behavior. That’s not the case with my own. Many friends have offered to not drink around me in solidarity.

    • musing says

      I agree with you that adopting the AA “subculture” can be a lifesaver for many, and I am glad that it has worked for you. In fact, it is probably dire that these new social norms are followed by members as the social norms from our culture can cost someone an early grave. I don’t think I hinted at that otherwise. The only thing I may regret is the label of “cult” as it says more about me than anything else, but if you look at the notes section, I believe I have been fair. I also say that it’s the best thing out there. Remember that this blog is about critiquing stuff and minus a provocative title, I believe I wasn’t too hard on the group. If you look at the next post, you will see that the last section talks about its merits. Thanks for the comment.

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