Saturday, February 15, 2014

Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? by Charles Bufe

Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?, Charles Bufe. Tuscon AZ: See Sharp Press, 1997 (revised). 208 pps.

For those who are unfamiliar with See Sharp Press, the company self-describes as a "Publisher of anarchist, atheist, music, and science fiction books." Anyone expecting essays that are unabashedly 'pro-Alcoholics Anonymous' should look elsewhere for reading matter. Those in recovery who are willing to concede that twelve step programs may not be the only way to recover or the best way for all addicts to find recovery should consider reading this book.

A.A. does have some characteristics of a cult. And while A.A. has been successful some of the time, there are some alcoholics who do not recover in a 12 step program. Some atheists who come into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous [and other programs using the 12 steps] do find some sort of higher power. Others do not. A few believers who come into the rooms discover after a time that they no longer believe. 

While the rehab market has almost entirely bought into the "Higher Power" stuff, I suggest that a disservice is being done to two sets of their clients. There are some people who are atheist and/or agnostic in orientation. They have carefully evaluated a variety of religions and religious thought. They are sincere about their non-theism and ought not to be pressured by clinical staff into accepting a brand of spirituality that is not genuine to who they are as human beings. There are others who are marked by their beliefs and their religious practices as belonging to the label 'fundamentalist.' Fundamentalist Christians, the born-againers, and those who accept a literal interpretation of their holy literature-- whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish or other-- will find that the 12-step version of a Higher Power pales in comparison to what they are used to. Additionally, the emphasis by professionals and by folks who bring meetings into the institution on 'keeping an open mind' is something that neither the non-theist nor the fundamentalist will relate to. Are these people to be lost to their addictions?

New Agey 'feel-good' affirmations are not appropriate to offer to an atheist or to a fundamentalist in early recovery. The pop psychology brand of 'treatment' replete with New Age trappings like affirmations, yoga, showing of the film The Secret, lectures on The Course in Miracles or attendance at a Unity service, a strong insistence that 'there are no true coincidences and all of the rest are foreign to both groups. The interesting thing about James Christopher's S.O.S. secular sobriety groups is that both atheists and fundamentalists have found some common ground there. One set of members don't have any sort of gods or higher powers. The other set recognize a very specific God and don't want their religious beliefs or practices to be altered. The S.O.S. meeting in my town is a place where both non-theists and fundamentalists peacefully co-exist.

Addiction is fundamentally a behavioral problem. As such, we do not know enough about competent treatment of people who have it and who are looking for their way out of the mess. Instead, what we have is pretty much the entire recovery industry and 12 step groups who have jumped on the disease concept bandwagon. The practice of the twelve steps has saved many lives from the bondage of addiction. But there are more lives to liberate. 

Ideally, a treatment program ought to grant their clients access to a variety of options: A.A. and all of the other A's [Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Methadone Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Dual Recovery Anonymous, Double Trouble [a separate organization which currently has meetings in NY, NJ and PA], Alanon, Alateen, Alapup, etc...], Women for Sobriety, Smart Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, Red Road groups [for indigenous Americans], Overcomers Anonymous [specifically for fundamentalist Christians] and others. Non-traditional clients who are returning to hometowns that do not have anything other than the traditional twelve step programs around ought to be taught how to network with others in order to form a group that will help them. They should also be given information on recovery options which are available on-line. 

This cookie-cutter approach to abstinence must stop. If rehabs and drug courts are to offer true intervention, then the individual addict [which includes those who are addicted to the drug alcohol] must be considered in the intervention and in the services being offered. "Individualized treatment plans" which do not take into account that the customer of rehab services is a viable human being with his or her own life and way of being are worthless. Those good members of traditional 12 step groups who scream and yell about the evil inherent in alternative notions of spirituality or even of recovery are partly responsible for a perception that A.A. may in fact be cult-ish or a form of group-think.

This book has research and stats to back up its' conclusions. It offers hope to people who have not found A.A. to be the welcoming fortress that others have found. We are talking about people here. We are talking about people who will continue to die because of our shortsightedness. 

sapphoq reviews says: Kudos to Charles Bufe for the willingness to go against the grain. We need and deserve alternates to 12 step recovery. Although Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? is an older book now, it is worth reading. 

P.S.: Those who want examples of how to individualize the twelve steps can read Charlotte Kasl's most excellent Many Roads, One Journey. Those who are interested in on-line arguments pro- and con- twelve step programs can turn to  and to  for starters.

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