Is AA a cult?

In some ways, AA shares characteristics with cults. In other ways, AA may seem like a religion. But where does Alcoholics Anonymous fall within the sociological practice of its beliefs? Is AA truly a cult?

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Cult definition

Traditionally, sociologists have defined a cult as a group whose ritual practices and beliefs are outside the social norm. However, cults have become more narrowly defined in recent years. Cults are now better understood to be groups that impose authority on their members, exploit members and use rituals or mind control to retain membership. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) has a cult checklist which can be segmented into three sections:

1. Cult group characteristics

  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • The group believes that its ends justify whatever means it deems necessary.
  • The group makes elitist claims of a special, exalted status for the group, its leader(s) and members. The group has an Us vs. them mentality, which may cause conflict with society.
  • The group uses peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion to influence and control members.
  • The group uses feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members
  • Group obedience requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter their personal goals and activities.

2. Cult leader characteristics

  • Leader(s) dictates how members should think, act, and feel (Ex.what clothes to wear, where to live, choice in marriage partner, etc.).
  • Leader(s) are not accountable to any authorities.
  • Leader(s) and members discourage or punish questioning, doubt, and dissent.
  • Leader(s) use mind altering practices or mind control to minimize or suppress doubt (chants, denunciation sessions, meditation, speaking in tongues, work routines)

3. Cult member characteristics

  • Members believe that the leader’s ideas, system, and practices are “Truth” or “The Law”.
  • Members devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • Members have excessive, excited and unquestioning commitment to the leader (dead or alive).
  • The most loyal members (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.

Is Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) a cult?

On the face of it, Alcoholics Anonymous may meet some of the criteria for behaving like a cult.  The group does work outside of mainstream society, and many of its beliefs would be considered weird or abnormal to the general populace.  Plus, there talk about the difference in thinking between alcoholics and “normies”, or people who are not alcoholic.   Furthermore, some members  ritualize the practices of A.A and its formers Bill W. and Dr. Bob maintain  a “hero” status within the organization.  Nonetheless,  A.A. seems more of a religion than a cult.  And even though there is an internal peer pressure that “A.A. is the only way” to sobriety, most people within A.A. would agree that other programs may work for other people.   Here are a few more reasons that A.A. may not be considered a cult:

  • The primary mission of Alcoholics Anonymous is to help others
  • Membership is voluntary; commitment to the group is a personal decision
  • A.A. encourages healthy relationships within society
  • Feelings of shame or guilt are seen as unhealthy
  • A.A. moral codes are in line with social norms
  • No central body or group imposes authority over individual members
  • There is no permanent leadership
  • Leaders are accountable to local, state and federal authorities
  • A.A. allows everyone a voice, including one of dissent

Your opinion on AA:  cult or religion or neither?

What do you think?  Does A.A. qualify to be a cult?  Is A.A. a religion or is the anonymity of A.A. outdated?  Does it even matter?  Your opinions are welcomed here.

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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