AS51: Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Cult?

Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Cult?

This week I have two guests on the show with the experience to answer this important question. First there’s Mike of the Digression Sessions Podcast, Mike was a very precocious alcoholic who was able to hit rock bottom at the impressive age of 21.  Just in time to actually legally drink! Mike had a somewhat positive experience with Alcoholics Anonymous. He was able to cope by picking and choosing which steps he liked. He was helped further by the fact that he was still fairly agnostic about god at the time.

Second is Danielle, who has actually never had a sip of alcohol! Because her mom was an alcoholic, though, she was indoctrinated into an extremely cult like group called Al Anon. We find out that this is a different group than Alcoholics Anonymous.  It is for the family and friends of addicts. However, the things she was forced to go through were just as controlling and unreasonable as the 12 steps can be for alcoholics.

For example, Danielle was told who and how she should date and what she should wear.  She was dictated to constantly by her sponsor. Danielle would never make any life decision without obtaining explicit approval from her Al Anon family. She was subject to a ton of Alcoholics Anonymous dogma and she wasn’t even an addict!

Was Danielle’s experience the norm or was Mike’s? It’s hard to say. But we also hear 3 clips from notable and representative members of Alcoholics Anonymous that paint a grim picture. Further, the steps themselves are incredibly religious. (See here: Though Mike was able to ignore the ridiculous parts, as an atheist I would have quite a hard time doing so myself.

Finally, some say the success rate for Alcoholics Anonymous is alarmingly poor. See for example.

Image courtesy of MR Lightman /



3 thoughts on “AS51: Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Cult?”

  1. Thank you for the fascinating AA discussion! I’m so glad that, as a Patreon, I can listen to the second part right away!!! 🙂

    You also mentioned the Free Will discussion, so let me make a quick point on that. I distinguish between a “bottom-up” and a “top-down” kinds of free will.

    “bottom-up” free will is the decision making capacity that organisms gradually acquired through evolution. It can be viewed as a skill, ability, etc.

    “top-down” free will is a concept that people have invented to describe how awesome they are and why they are different from animals.

    I see these as two distinct concepts. I see bottom-up free will as a real thing that can be meaningfully discussed. I see top-down free will as a magical, undefined, and maybe even incoherent.

    I will paraphrase your statement a bit, but essentially you asked how people with a bottom-up view of free will would deal with a decision-making computer. Personally, I see no problem with saying that a computer that functions just like a human brain has free will just like a human brain. I see no need for some kind of a magical ingredient.

    Looking forward to further exploration of this topic!

    1. I am an atheist & a member of NarcoticsAnonymous. It has been very difficult to adapt my philosophy easily to the 12 steps which requires one to adopt a “higher power” to work the program thoroughly. I have found though in my personal expierence a great group of people who are far more concerned with my sobriety than my indoctrination. NA & AA are highly decentralized and different groups can be very different & there are some that are far more rigid in there beliefs, but one must understand that many credit the program with having saved their lives & they view it as life & death making them quite orthodox. I’ve never seen anyone’s life orchestrated like the story above & I’ve been in the rooms with some success for 15 years.Reguardless of the specific parameters of the 12 step program which can certainly be dogmatic & cultish intellectually it’s first a room full of addicts/alcoholics trying to help each other stay clean & stay alive no religious test required..

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