As practically anyone who’s part of a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) knows, criticism of this approach to recovery abounds. A simple search will send you down an Internet rabbit hole and you’ll soon see the word “cult” spring up over and over again. As an active member of a 12-step program, I can attest that there are some things that might seem cult-like about AA. But the reality is very different.
Calling any group a cult is serious business. Which is why I wanted to examine the specific tenets of cults and look as objectively as I could (that’s why I noted up-front that I’m a current member of a 12-step program) at those that are most often applied to AA to see if any have merit and if so, which ones. Here I’ve selected the attributes I have heard and read applied most often to AA; the full list of what makes a group a cult (from which I’ve drawn these traits) can be found on The International Cultic Studies Association’s website. I’ve also taken information about cult leaders shared by from former FBI Counterintelligence Agent Joe Navarro in a piece.

Cult trait: “The group displays excessively zealous or unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology and practices as the Truth, as law.”

Cultic organizations are often as much about the leader as they are about any promised spiritual transformation. Bill Wilson (or Bill W., as he’s commonly referred to among AA members) is considered by many to be the “founder” (though technically he’s the co-founder, along with Dr. Bob) of AA. As a result, he has often been subject to the sort of deification that happens when someone is responsible for the creation of something as popular, and for many, life-saving, as Alcoholics Anonymous has been over the decades. The air of sanctity around Bill W. is enhanced by AA texts like, As Bill Sees It, and some members refer to Wilson with an almost religious reverence.

Sounds like a cult leader, right? But there are two key distinctions: First, a cult leader “has a sense of entitlement – expecting to be treated special at all times,” said Navarro. In contrast, Bill W. was a self-described “garden-variety drunk,” attributing the success of AA not to himself but to what happens when two alcoholics sit down and talk to each other about their addiction. The emphasis on anonymity exists for many reasons but one of the biggest is that AA was designed to be a program without an identifiable leader.

Second, perhaps the more compelling distinction between a cultic leader and Bill W. is this: how one feels about Bill Wilson has virtually no impact on how to practice the program he developed. In her book, My Name is Bill, Susan Cheever, an open member of AA, chronicles the many questionable personal attributes of Bill Wilson, all while conveying the utmost respect and admiration for the program he developed. Bill Wilson was “not a perfect man,” Cheever writes, “but he was the perfect man for the job [of creating Alcoholics Anonymous.]” Cult leaders, on the other hand, says Navarro, “refer to anyone who is not a member or anyone who questions him as ‘the enemy.’”

Cult trait: “The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example they must get permission to date, change jobs, marry — or leaders prescribe what type of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to disciple children and so forth).”

While AA’s decentralization has allowed the program to spread and flourish for decades, it also makes it possible for members and even entire groups to co-opt the program and turn it into a distorted version of the original. Ron Burks, PhD, an expert in the fields of addiction as well as cultic studies, and one of the founding members of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, in Athens, Ohio, where people go to essentially get de-culted, does not believe AA is a cult. “But,” he says, “there are sponsors who don’t adhere to the teachings of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, though they claim to be some kind of AA expert. They will hold special meetings for their sponsees and tell their sponsees that they are not allowed to go on this vacation or do this other thing. That is not AA. There is nothing in AA that suggests anyone behave in that kind of controlling manner.”

There’s no excuse for people who prey on vulnerable people under the guise of AA. There are crazy fundamentalists in every organization and, unfortunately, AA is no exception to this rule.

Cult trait: “The group is preoccupied with making money.”

Often confused with for-profit rehab centers — especially those that use the 12 steps as a program of recovery — AA has from its inception taken extraordinary measures to be self-supporting and is offered at minimal or no cost to members. A hat is passed during meetings and regular members are asked to contribute $1 to cover rent for the room and drinks. Any money that’s left after those immediate expenses have been paid is divided between the local and state AA offices, then given to the global office. No individual is permitted to donate more than $3,000 per year to AA, lest excessive donors try to exert influence over the organization. AA also refuses endorsements from outside groups and doesn’t endorse outside groups. AA’s rigidity in this respect has gained the admiration of some, prompting them to cite AA’s financial structure among “best practices” for other nonprofits. “One of the most brilliant things Bill Wilson did when he was establishing AA was not classifying it as a religious organization,”* notes Dr. Burks. “He didn’t want AA to have the tax exemptions and shields that made organizations like Scientology so wealthy. He wanted it to be transparent.”

Cult trait: “The group is focused on recruiting new members.”

AA is pretty clear on this one. The 11th tradition states in part, “our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.” You won’t find billboards encouraging people to come to AA or folks handing out pamphlets at airports. When it comes to friends who won’t shut up about how great their AA group is, they’re probably not trying to “recruit” you; most likely, they’re just excited to have found other people who are trying to get and stay sober.

The chapter in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous called “Working with Others” is an outline for how to talk about AA with active alcoholics who inquire about the program. On page 97 it reads in part:

“Make it plain that he is under no obligation to you … Make it clear that he is not under pressure, that he needn’t see you again if he doesn’t want to. You should not be offended if he wants to call it off…If your talk has been sane, quiet and full of human understanding, you have perhaps made a friend.”

Sounds like the stuff of mind control, right?

There are also notable differences in the type of new members AA accrues compared to cultic organizations. A 2007 article on cults in the publication Nursing Standard notes, “recruiters will usually target educated people with good earning potential. It is also important to remember that no one ‘joins’ a cult, they are actively recruited using well-tested methods of psychological conversion.” It’s safe to say that most newcomers to AA aren’t exactly flying in on the wings of glory. In most cases, their relationship to drugs and/or alcohol has seriously compromised their personal relationships, job, finances, health or some combination of all four. When you’re looking for someone who can give a lot of money, or at least serve as an appealing recruiter for the cult, bottomed-out drunks aren’t the ideal candidates.

So where do people get the idea that AA is a cult-y welcome wagon for drunks? Erin**, a recovering alcoholic of two years, offers this theory: “[It’s] the hugs and the friendliness! When I was new and pissed-off at the world, people [at AA] were so freakishly nice to me,” she told me. “They gave me their phone numbers and called to ask how I was doing. I thought for sure there was some weird, ulterior motive.” Now, however, Erin is one of those freakishly friendly people. “We’re not selling anything, there’s no Kool-Aid to drink —though we have pretty crappy coffee, if that’s what you’re into,” she laughs. “It’s just that people remember how rough it is to be newly sober and they want to be there for someone who is struggling if he or she wants help.” So remember: Hugs don’t always equal cults.

Cult trait: “Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities/members are required/encouraged to live or socialize only with group members.”

“When my husband first began going to AA, I was offended that he spent so much time going to meetings and seeing people from AA,” recalls Diane, a member of Alanon, a 12-step support group for loved ones of alcoholics and addicts. “I had tried so hard to ‘fix’ him and I took it quite personally that these other people seemed to be doing more for my husband than I could.” For a while, she admits, it was easier to think that AA had some kind of stranglehold over her husband. “But then he stayed sober, which he’d never been able to do before,” Diane says. “I started talking to him about the program and he’d have people from his meetings over for coffee and tea and I saw what was really happening.” Diane laughs, then reddens slightly with embarrassment: “He had just made new friends. Of course he wasn’t going to the bar to hang out with his old drinking buddies. He was just getting coffee with new friends.”

There’s no requirement or even informal encouragement in AA about socializing with other members of AA, but it’s generally inevitable. Just as if you switched up your regular visits to the bar for yoga classes at the gym, odds are you’d start socializing with your fellow yogis simply because you see one another a lot. Burks says this is unavoidable, but very different from cultic behavior: “The level of exclusion of ‘outside’ people cults demand of its members is extreme.” Twelve-step programs, on the other hand, offer, in part, a way to repair damaged relationships with family members and other loved ones, not an edict to sever ties.

Cult trait: “Members participate in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.”

I read this trait aloud to Erin to get her take and she laughs: “Before I started working the program in AA I would have considered going a week, or even a day, without a drink reprehensible, so yeah, I guess AA must be a cult.” While Erin is obviously kidding, it’s true that most people who find that AA works for them behave differently, at least in some ways, than they did prior to getting sober. “I used to think sitting through one of my daughter’s ballet performances was the ultimate nightmare. The shows were long and I couldn’t drink,” says Brian. “I hate to admit it, but I would try to get out of them every time. Now, I want to show up and I do. I’m not jumping out of my seat because I can’t wait to get home to drink and I haven’t missed the show because I fell asleep in my chair before my daughter even got onstage.” A change in behavior is not uncommon when people get sober, of course (whether through AA or another way), but it’s usually the reprehensible and unethical behavior that disappears, replaced by new, healthy habits.

Cult trait: “The most loyal members of cults (the ‘true believers’) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider) leaving the group.”

“I fear leaving Alcoholics Anonymous,” admits Paul, a recovering alcoholic with three years of sobriety. “I don’t fear the group, though; I just fear that I would start drinking again.” For those who find that the program works to keep them sober, leaving AA naturally causes trepidation. Perhaps the more valid criticism (though blame can’t be assigned to AA or any other organization) is that there aren’t a ton of accessible, affordable alternatives to AA that also have some track record of success. This could make some members feel as though they wouldn’t know where to go if they did want to seek support elsewhere.

What’s more, when AA does work for someone, a few do adopt the attitude that it’s the best or only way to get sober. While it’s understandable that some members believe this, anyone who has tried and failed repeatedly to accomplish a goal is likely to tout the merits of whatever helped them succeed. But there are no absolutes in addiction treatment. Many different things work for many different people and most, but not all, AA members recognize this. We addicts should know better than to wag our fingers at a fellow addict and instead should support them in whatever way they need to get sober. Unfortunately, some in AA do take the “it’s this way or the highway” mentality. This is damaging to how the organization is perceived and, more important, it hurts addicts who need help finding alternatives to AA. Hopefully, programs like LifeRing will continue to become more visible alternatives to traditional 12-step programs.

In cultic organizations, however, leaving isn’t just difficult. Karen Pressley, a former Commanding Officer of the Church of Scientology’s Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, spoke to CNN in 2012 about the difficulty of exiting Scientology. “You don’t have the freedom [in Scientology] to make a choice like that, just to walk out. You have to get permission,” she said. “But in order to get permission you have to go through an intensive security check, interrogation procedure before you can be approved to leave.” If you want to leave an AA meeting, well, you just walk out the door. Meetings are only an hour long and even if you wanted to stay there longer, sooner or later someone would kick you out. Not because there’s a super-secret meeting of the organization’s highest order, but because the church basement probably needs to set up for the kindergarten after-school art program.

*There is significant controversy over whether or not AA should be considered a religion, especially considering that people are often sentenced to AA through the judicial system, raising valid questions about the separation of church and state. This article seeks to dispel myths about AA being a cult (religious or otherwise), not comment on issue of religion in AA.

**Names and identifying details of all 12-step participants interviewed for this article have been changed.