From the archives: Exposing the myth of Alcoholics Anonymous – cult not cure Steven Mohr The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 21, Issue 1, from 2011.

Those who come to AA are in trouble. Those in the worst shape have become physically and emotionally debilitated. Some are on the verge of literally drinking themselves to death or going insane. Others have been court ordered to attend because they committed a crime under the influence. In between are those who are just sick of the life of alcohol addiction. They have tried to stop on their own and failed. They have been told there is hope in the fellowship of AA. And, very importantly, they have found that society offers little else by way of help for them. They seem to have few options left.

People in this state are depressed and desperate. They are ready to be given hope, and AA claims to offer that hope if they will “just follow a few simple rules”. But the hope offered by AA begins and ends with indoctrination to a set of religious beliefs. Much time could be spent examining the details of the indoctrination as there are many subtleties. The methods are typical of other mind control cults, so it is useful here to summarize.

The newcomer (tellingly referred to as a pigeon in the programme) is told that his only hope of survival is to accept complete defeat and powerlessness over alcohol. He is told initially that if he will only open his mind to the concept of a Power-Greater-Than-Himself he has a chance. He is told that the Power can be any of which he can personally conceive. In a ridiculous example, I have heard of a man who chose a door knob as his Higher Power and stayed sober by praying to the door knob until his death. All-Powerful pieces of hardware notwithstanding, the usual progression is that under the guidance of the AA fellowship, whatever power the pigeon may have conceived, shortly becomes a traditional Judeo/Christian/Muslim God – a God of prayer, intercession, and ultimate salvation.

Notice in the 12 steps how being powerless over the disease of alcoholism quickly becomes a non-descript form of insanity? Then the pigeon must take Moral Inventory before he can continue on the road to recovery (how the insane can be expected to take moral inventory is never addressed). Next, the pigeon is told he has not just an illness, but profound Defects of Character (Sins?). He must confess his sins. He must plead with God to remove his character defects. He must surrender his Will to that of God. He must pray to God ceaselessly. Finally, he must realize that he will never be entirely free of this horrible deadly illness. He can only keep it at bay by involving himself with other alcoholics – bringing more pigeons into the programme. He is encouraged to attend AA meetings as often as possible for the rest of his life.

The message is very clear. The alcoholic has one chance and one chance only – personal knowledge of God through the programme of AA. But what happens if he relapses? Relapse is very common in and out of AA although exact figures are, again, elusive. The point here is that the alcoholic has been told repeatedly and quite forcefully that he can never drink alcohol again. If he does he will be worse than he was when he last stopped. He is forcefully told that his disease grows whether or not he is actively drinking. There is a mantra repeated at most AA meetings, “Without AA the alcoholic is doomed to one of three fates: Incarceration, Insanity, or Death.” There is a deep nihilism to such a doctrine, but AA thrives on such nihilism and its members suffer the hopelessness implicit therein.

When the recovering alcoholic does relapse, as most do, there is a tendency toward fatalism. “I am powerless. I can’t stop and God has not answered my prayers, therefore I am inferior – even worthless.” If a person is truly powerless over alcohol and if he has failed even with the help of God; why not just keep drinking?

Having spent time in the AA programme myself, I found the most difficult stories to understand were those of, say, someone with twenty years sobriety relapsing and shortly drinking themselves to death. What kind of programme could only offer one day or even one moment of recovery at a time and call itself successful? How could someone still be an alcoholic after twenty sober years? The answer I invariably received was that they let their guard down and their “baffling”, incurable disease got them. It sounded too much to me like a Christian who must be forever on guard against Satan, not a man or woman with a medical condition undergoing treatment.


The next crucial questions from societal, legal and health care points of view are how has Alcoholics Anonymous managed to inculcate itself into the addiction treatment industry and court system so thoroughly? And how do they get away with it? I have not even mentioned yet the many 12-step spin-offs of AA such as Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous… the list goes on. They all follow mostly the same steps and doctrine of AA and they all work equally poorly. Apparently, many sick people are not getting better and some are suffering terribly under the present 12-step-based system of addiction recovery.

As I have already mentioned the great majority of alcohol and drug rehabilitation facilities (up to ninety percent) in this country use 12-step indoctrination, and the US court system regularly requires AA meeting attendance for those convicted of alcohol- or drug-related crimes. Many are forced to attend AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings while in prison, as if being in jail weren’t punishment enough. In tracing the circumstances by which AA has risen to become the major treatment of choice in the US for alcoholism we must recognize that the devout AA members are ardent crusaders for their cause.

U.S. medical insurance companies regularly refuse to cover any treatment that is not 12-step based. This is the beginning of an answer. Alcohol and drug treatment has grown into a multi-billion dollar per year industry. The cost of a 28-day inpatient rehab stay typically ranges from $10,000 to $35,000. Inpatient treatment for the severe case is considered essential by many professionals in the field, although such treatments generally have little better long-term success than AA alone.

The business is self-perpetuating in this way. We have all heard of celebrities who have relapsed again and again after inpatient treatment even at the most prestigious clinics. Robert Downey Jr comes to mind. Since relapse is common and alcoholism is medically considered a disease, a continued supply of sick people is assured. The members of Alcoholics Anonymous are surely getting a share of this money.

But wait. Isn’t AA a non-profit organization? Along with Twelve Steps, AA as an organization has Twelve Traditions. Don’t these include refusing outside contributions? The answer to both questions is ostensibly “yes” though in reality dubious. Consider three of the Traditions (Wilson, 2003):

Tradition 6: An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.

Tradition 6 is violated every day. Consider an excerpt from the advertising literature of a very successful South Florida Rehab Center (I spent 28 days as a voluntary patient there myself). “The Beachcomber is geared towards the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Al-Anon, with meetings on the premises. An A.A/N.A. contact is made for each client before leaving as well as a schedule of A.A. and N.A. meetings.” (Beachcomber Family Center for Addiction Recovery, no date). I should add that even when not attending AA/NA meetings the 12 steps were pervasive and a large part of my treatment.

Tradition 7: Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

It is very common for members of substantial resource to donate property and services to AA.

Tradition 12: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Anonymity is a powerful tool by which AA promotes itself to the public. Many AA members occupy positions in government and the health care industry. Even if we assume that their motives are pure, failure to identify themselves as adherents to a God-based organization that requires proselytization by its membership is strictly unethical.

AA has no proscription against its members starting independent companies and using them to promote the AA agenda. Again, such members have the distinct advantage of remaining anonymous in their business dealings. AA members do not, except on rare occasions, use their full name. Even the AA cofounders are still referred to often as Bill W and Doctor Bob. AA members on the Board of Trustees and the General Services Organization of AA are required by law to have their full names recorded but it stops there.

Let us say, for instance, that the president of insurance company XYZ Corporation, Steve Alkie has been an AA member for years. He accepts and practices the 12 steps. In all direct associations with AA, he is known simply as Steve A. The fact that he is an admitted alcoholic and active member of AA may never be known in his role as president of XYZ. This is correct in the sense of his personal privacy under law. But remember that Steve is a member of a religious cult. He has been indoctrinated into the belief system that AA is the only path to alcoholic recovery and that path requires devotion to God. Steve further believes, as I have often heard even from medical professionals, that the 12 steps are a wonderful way to live one’s life – alcoholic or not. (With the 12-step nihilistic vision of human nature, I would certainly beg to differ.)

Being in the insurance business, Steve’s fundamental belief that AA is good for alcoholics and that he is compelled by God to promote the AA doctrine would surely influence his decisions about which types of rehabilitation clinics his company supports. Because AA is recognized by the US government as a nonprofit self-help group there is no conflict. The truth as we have seen though is that AA is a religious cult. Insurance companies are not supposed to pay for religious treatment, but they routinely do. The results are that AA continues to flourish and its members continue to make a lot of money, while few alcoholics get the long-term help they need. Remember they might even have a higher mortality rate than the general population.

The other big problem is in the legal system of the United States. While it would be perfectly legitimate for courts to routinely sentence alcoholic offenders to a medical and proven programme of rehabilitation, it is flatly illegal and, in fact, unconstitutional for them to sentence said offenders to a religious programme. Yet they do. The benefit of the doubt would be given if one concluded that the courts have been duped by the AA cult. And probably this is true to some extent. The more exacting arguments would be that legislators have been extensively lobbied by AA proponents, and that AA members hold important positions throughout government and the court system. They have included senators, congressmen and judges.

The evangelical cult of Alcoholics Anonymous has deliberately sought proliferation of its religious conversion agenda by infiltration of the medical community and legal system of the United States of America. They have used their Principle of Anonymity to disguise themselves in these efforts. Though admittedly many AA members are well intentioned, believing deeply in their cause, AA has lied to the American public for 70 years. AA has no cure or even hope to offer suffering alcoholics. Americans need to recognize the true nature of AA, its abysmal failure, and inherent dangers.

The Greater Seattle Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous features an online collection of brief histories called “High and Dry, Oldtimers’ Stories Online”. One of these oldtimers, Lloyd B, an AA member of forty years writes, “In about 1964 an article came out in Harper’s Magazine titled ‘AA: Cure or Cult?’ There was a big controversy about it. Should we string this guy up or what? As it turned out he had gone through treatment and AA meetings and was not happy with the Higher Power end of things. We found out at that time the best thing to do was let it be. And of course, it went away.” (see

The February 1963 Harper’s Magazine article Lloyd refers to was indeed titled, AA: Cure or Cult? by Dr Arthur H. Cain, PhD. Dr Cain was then a practicing psychologist and graduate of Columbia University and of the Yale School of Alcohol Studies. The article’s clear conclusion was Cult not Cure. Lloyd B. writes it off to Dr Cain being “not happy with the Higher Power end of things” as though the Higher Power belief was a minor aspect of AA when, in fact, it is the primary point as we have seen. Lloyd’s attitude is telling in that he dismisses as trivial the central tenet of the AA programme as almost incidental while wishing that the controversy stirred against his favorite cult would just go away. Well, I’m sorry Lloyd. Though you and others of your fellowship may choose denial and ignorance of the facts, the truth has a funny way of hanging around. It won’t just “go away”.


Beachcomber Family Center for Addiction Recovery (n. d.).

Cain, A. H. (1963). AA: Cure or Cult? Harper’s Bazaar Magazine, February 1963

Wilson, B. (2003). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous.

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From the archives in 2011, Steven Mohr concludes his two-part investigation into the Alcoholics Anonymous movement
The post From the archives: Exposing the myth of Alcoholics Anonymous – cult not cure appeared first on The Skeptic.