I’ve been somewhat suspicious of Alcoholics Anonymous for many years. I grew up with an alcoholic stepfather, and had some experience with AA when I was younger, which you can read about in an earlier post. One of my big issues has been the idea of powerlessness and giving yourself over to a “higher power.” Though AA has been careful to use the non-denominational “higher power,” it always felt like a thinly veiled religious god, and more specifically one of the monotheistic sky-gods (of Christianity, Islam and Judaism).
But the idea that you can’t rely on yourself, your own will, has always troubled me. I know it seems to work for a lot of people, but it never felt like a cure, just a lifelong band-aid over a wound that never heals because the wound itself is never even treated. And I know I’m not the only one. There are treatment centers in Japan whose patients are able to drink in moderation without immediately becoming “alcoholics” after one sip. And a controversial book last year by Harvard psychology professor Gene M. Heyman, Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, punched further holes in AA’s insistence of powerlessness in alcoholics.
Why that matters, I think, is for this reason. As Science-Based Medicine reminds us, that makes AA a faith-based treatment, not a scientifically sound method of treating anyone. They write: “Alcoholics Anonymous is the most widely used treatment for alcoholism. It is mandated by the courts, accepted by mainstream medicine, and required by insurance companies. AA is generally assumed to be the most effective treatment for alcoholism, or at least “an” effective treatment. That assumption is wrong.”
And there are plenty of other critics out there, such as Sober Without Gods, Stinkin’ Thinkin’ and this particularly interesting essay, I Was An AA Nazi, at When they tell you to ‘Keep Coming Back’, run for your life!!! Escape from Alcoholics Anonymous. And there’s at least two Yahoo groups, Escaping the Cult of AA and 12-Step Free. And that, I assume, just skims the surface. Reading some of those, AA comes off more like a cult than anything else. As many of its critics also point out, many former alcoholics replace their addiction to booze with an addition to AA or religion more generally. I realize many people will argue that the latter is safer and healthier than the former, but isn’t obvious that trading one addiction for another is no cure and does nothing to address any underlying causes?
Now, more evidence is coming to light that even the “higher power” dodge in AA wasn’t always there. As a recent article in the Washington Post reported, founder Bill Wilson’s original manuscript from before 1939, which is being published for the first time, shows that the original document was nakedly Christian in its tone. But before it was published, Wilson had a number of people help him edit his manuscript, and how to characterize religion in it became a hotly debated topic. Eventually all references to a specific god were generalized and changed so they could be essentially anything. That was a calculated decision.
According to the Post, “AA historians [whatever that means] and treatment experts say” claim the edits were made to “adopt a more inclusive tone was enormously important in making the deeply spiritual text accessible to the non-religious and non-Christian.” Frankly, that sounds like apologetics. The changes were largely semantical, the tone of the program remained deeply religious, only the names were changed so it could be claimed it was not. That allowed it to be spread farther and wider than if it had remained true to its roots, and I’m even willing to believe that in 1939 their heart was in the right place. The idea of religious freedom has been in our Constitution almost since the beginning, but we’ve been a mostly-Christian nation for the majority of our history. It’s really only been in recent decades that the promise of the First Amendment is beginning to be addressed and enforced.
But in 1939, they decided not to address the role of religion in treating addiction, instead opting to essentially try to hide its “spirituality” or at least tried to couch it in non-denominational platitudes.
But the crossed-out phrases and scribbles make clear that the words easily could have read differently. And the edits embody a debate that continues today: How should the role of spirituality and religion be handled in addiction treatment?
They also take readers back to an era when churches and society generally stigmatized alcohol addicts as immoral rather than ill. The AA movement’s reframing of addiction as having a physical component (the “doctor’s opinion” that opens the book calls it “a kind of allergy”) was revolutionary, experts say.
Maybe, but today AA’s Big Book (a.k.a. its “Bible”) has changed little since those initial edits. It’s remained almost exactly the same, only a few of the stories have been updated. But the world has not stayed the same as it was in 1939. People’s approach to religion has changed dramatically. We’re a more diverse nation spiritually than we were then, I’d wager, and more tolerant (I continue to hope) of other points of view. I’m sure AA seemed revolutionary at the time, 70+ years ago, but remaining the same while the world changed around it has turned it into an antiquated cult. Not to mention, much more has been learned about addiction, much of contradicting AA’s original premises and methods. And while some claim AA has incorporated these newer insights into the program, it seems to me it’s remained largely unchanged at its core. Certainly its bible has remained the same, as religious as the day it started.