Like many labeling exercises, it’s tougher than you might think to pin down the answer to the question that headlines this article.
The first problem is with the word cult itself. The dictionary definition is rather mild, having to do with a religious sect. This is because the definition is rooted in Christian ideology and practice, so that cults are seen as other forms of worship, outside of Christian tradition. In this light, AA is not a cult. It avoids outright religious practice and allows for “a god of your own understanding.” However, in popular parlance, cult is used quite differently.
What’s a cult?
There are several popular ideas, ranging from any organization that practices mind control through to a hundred item scale that seeks to rank an organization based on its policies and actions.
CultWatch, a Christian based organization, has a very loose definition of what a cult is, and AA arguably fits. ”The modern definition of "Cult" refers to any group that uses manipulative psychological “Mind Control” techniques to recruit and control their members.” Since the purpose of AA is to give members the tools to remain abstinent and overcome alcoholism, it does try to influence and modify how members think, specifically how they think about themselves and about drinking.
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Reading further on their site shows us that AA is definitely not a cult in their view. Under Self Help and Counselling Cults they mention deception in recruiting, financial gain, and recruiting family members and others – a description that doesn’t fit Alcoholics Anonymous at all.
Insolitology has a 17-item survey that visitors can use to rank an organization on a scale, where anything over 10 is “cult-like,” with a score from 5 to 10 matching up with most religions and less than 5 ranked as “not cultish at all.”
Depending on the answers you select, AA may fall just beneath 10 or slightly above. The reasons for this are discussed in the next section. I came up with a score of exactly 10.
Orange Papers is a site that is highly critical of AA. There is a hundred item test used to determine if an organization is a cult, and they score AA quite far along the cult scale. However, some of the justifications for labeling AA as a cult seem a stretch.
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For example, under “Threats of Bodily Harm or Death to members who leave the cult” the author scores institutional AA (the official version, not how groups are usually run in practice) a 10. Why? Because you can suffer jail or loss of a professional license if you do not attend when demanded to do so by a judge or professional organization. This is hardly bodily harm or death.
Many of the other items on this survey also seem like a stretch to see AA in the most critical light possible.
The escape clause
Opinions certainly vary. Many will argue with great passion on both sides of the question. Here is a forum thread that has run for two years, with more than 6,000 posts, all arguing whether AA is a religion, a cult or something else.
The escape clause, for anyone who has attended more than a few meetings across several local groups, is that individual groups act independently. That means they are not overseen by a centralized authority. Groups are free to use or not use the materials provided, and because of this, follow their own ideas of what is helpful.
Even if some groups did seem more cult-like, there are many that are nowhere close to that description. Without direct oversight from an authoritarian system, it’s simply a gathering of like-minded people trying to help each other out.
Yes, the principles of AA are followed, but there is so much variation it’s pointless to paint AA with any broad brush. This is a good thing. Potential members are able to “shop around” to find a group that meets their particular needs and whose members best match that person’s style of communication. Some groups have a strong Christian element, some have none. Some strictly follow the steps and formal meeting structure; others abandon this for a free-form style of sharing.
The final answer has to be that AA is not a cult in practice, no matter how it may score based on examining the texts and the history of Bill Wilson.