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AA: Guilt and god for the gullible
20 years of heavy drinking, blackouts, DWIs, wrecked cars,
and one long stretch in jail, I quit drinking. I decided
I was wasting my life and finally admitted the obvious to
myself-that I was becoming more and more isolated, that
alcohol was quickly becoming my only friend. So I stopped.
I didn't even bother with AA because of my prior experiences
with the organization.
Two years earlier I had been concerned about my drinking
and checked out a few AA meetings. I didn’t like what
I found: smoke-filled rooms, a religious, cult-like atmosphere,
and chain smokers bragging about how working the steps had
freed them from their addiction. An acquaintance put the
matter succinctly: ”A lot of those meetings are like
a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” So,
I decided that AA was even worse than drinking.
Looking back on it, I was looking for an excuse to continue
drinking; and AA certainly provided it.
All is not well in alcoholism treatment programs, either.
In addition to the disorganization I found at the treatment
center I attended, there are other problems. One is that
most counselors apparently have been alcoholics, have gotten
sober through AA, and adhere religiously to its principles.
Participation in AA is a requirement for group participants
in most treatment centers, and an atmosphere of AA religiosity
permeates many programs. This is a common problem in treatment
Another problem is that many counselors and administrators
in such programs are power-trippers and seem to enjoy laying
down and enforcing arbitrary rules governing participants’
behavior. This is an especially serious problem in alcoholism
programs because those in the early stages of recovery from
alcohol dependence tend to be very vulnerable emotionally.
Probably the worst thing about AA is its religiosity. The
centerpiece of the AA dogma is, unfortunately, the Twelve
Steps. God or a “Power greater than ourselves”
is mentioned in fully half of the steps. Thus, anyone with
the honesty to admit that the existence of God is no more
likely than the existence of Santa Claus is, at the least,
made to feel very uncomfortable at most AA meetings. What
makes matters worse is that “AA step zombies”
as a matter of course tell those new to the program that
if they don’t follow the steps, they’ll never
make it-they’ll start drinking again. That is often
a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Life is filled with annoyances, dangers, and uncertainties,
and like most people, steps-o-maniacs don’t want to
face them; they don’t want to be adults. They want
a Big Brother to take care of them.
The religious beliefs of most AA members do not free them,
as they would like to believe, from their dependence on
alcohol; rather, they act as a substitute for it. If they
were actually free, they wouldn’t need the fix of
regular meetings and the constant reinforcement of their
comforting but irrational beliefs.
Guilt is another bothersome aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous
religiosity. The Twelve Steps are replete with references
to “our wrongs, our shortcomings,” and “making
amends.” This places responsibility for the alcoholic’s
addiction squarely on his or her shoulders. Not only does
this induce guilt, it’s also thoroughly unscientific
and is just plain wrong. Modern research has clearly shown
that alcoholism is a matter of genetics, that alcoholics
have about as much choice in the matter as they do about
the color of their eyes. AA-induced guilt only serves to
make dealing with the very real problems recovering alcoholics
face even more difficult.
An additional problem related to religiosity is hypocrisy.
There is a saying in AA: “Fake it until you make it.”
What that means in practice is that newcomers should sit
on their doubts and mouth the AA line until they forget
they ever had doubts. Thus hypocrisy is an essential element
in the cloning process of step-zombies. An acquaintance
told me that he had recently mentioned certain doubts at
an AA meeting. After it was over, his sponsor (a sort of
Big Brother within AA) told him that he wasn’t supposed
to criticize AA itself. Puzzled, he replied that he thought
AA was supposed to be a program of honesty. To that, his
sponsor said, “Yes, but you shouldn’t criticize
the organization.” He replied, “I think I don’t
need a sponsor.”
Sponsors are supposed to provide newcomers with advice and
assistance, but they end up running the lives of those they’re
supposed to be helping. Naturally, the position of sponsor
attracts meddling busybodies who love to control others.
They often hang around AA meetings on the lookout for newcomers,
like vultures on the watch for fresh meat. Newcomers, like
all people in the early stages of recovery from alcoholism,
are emotionally vulnerable and often fall into the clutches
of these buzzards. If you’ve recently quit drinking,
are checking out AA, and someone, unasked, says to you,
“I think you need a sponsor,” don’t walk,
RUN in the opposite direction.
So much for the negative aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous.
There are also positive ones. A very good feature is that
AA is open to all, the only requirement for membership being
a desire to stop drinking. No identification is required,
and there are no dues or fees.
Another good feature is that AA is decentralized. Groups
are autonomous, ad there is no hierarchy giving orders to
the membership. Among other things, this leaves room in
AA for dissident groups and members.
But the most important thing is that AA works, at least
for some people. Why? I believe there are three main reasons.
One is that AA is an important social outlet for many. Loneliness
is a terrible problem in our society, and people will flock
to almost anything that relieves it-even AA meetings.
A second and related reason is that AA meetings allow alcoholics
to realize that their problems are not unique. Meetings
provide members with the opportunity to vent feelings, and
to give and receive emotional support, and oftentimes useful
advice, on ways to avoid drinking.
The third reason is that AA steps provide structure-a well
groomed path to follow-and that can look awfully attractive
when your world has turned upside down and you no linger
have your best friend-alcohol-to lean on. I believe that
to a large degree the content of the steps is irrelevant.
What is actually important is simply that the steps are
there and that those dependent on them believe that they’re
the means for overcoming alcoholism. Another way of spelling
recovery-via-the-steps is placebo.
These things, especially the first two, are all that is
really needed. Any program that provides alcoholics with
the opportunity to meet, talk, and support one another on
a regular basis will work; it will help alcoholics stay
sober. A structure similar to the steps-but without their
religiosity and blame-laying-which would stress rational
means of recovery, would be an additional help. Rational
means include: realization that the only means for alcoholics
to control drinking is simply not to do it; expression of
emotions that have been submerged in a sea of booze, often
since childhood; becoming as well-informed about the medical
and psychological aspects of alcoholism as possible; honesty
with oneself and others; self-analysis through keeping a
journal; and developing mutually supportive relationships
with others. Working with these materials, it’s very
easy to construct a much sturdier set of steps than that
provided by AA.
A non-religious national organization for recovering and
recovered alcoholics has been badly needed. If there were
one anywhere near the scope of Alcoholics Anonymous, it
would almost certainly help far more people to sobriety
than AA does (AA claims a 10 percent recovery rate, which
is probably optimistic).
Fortunately, two fledgling non-religious organizations have
recently appeared. One is American Atheists Addiction Recovery
Groups (AAARG), which is sponsored by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s
group, American Atheists, Box 140195, Austin, TX 78714-0195.
The other, larger group is Secular Organizations for Sobriety
(SOS). SOS is intended for all those put off by AA’s
religiosity, but no just atheists. SOS can be contacted
by mail via Box 15781, North Hollywood, CA 91615, and by
phone at (818) 980-8851. At last count there were about
50 regular SOS meetings at locations scattered across the
But until these organizations become considerable larger,
most of those who wish to free themselves of alcohol use
have little choice but to use existing treatment programs
and AA. These can provide a lot of help if approached skeptically
and used intelligently. Much as many AA steps-o-maniacs
would like you to believe it, it is not necessary to give
up your rationality and integrity to free yourself of alcoholism.
I and a lot of other happy, sober people are living evidence
of that fact.
with permission from The Match! (Nov.1, 1987). Subscriptions
$10/yr. (4 issues) from The Match! An Anarchist Journal,
Box 3488, Tucson, AZ 85722. Back issues: $2.50 from same
Utne Reader, Nov.-Dec. 1988)