The 13th Tradition: Thou Shall Not Criticize A.A.

I have been scolded, warned, and threatened for saying and writing what I think about Alcoholics Anonymous. In all cases, what I have been told boils down to: You shouldn’t criticize a program that has helped millions of people stay sober. Well, why not?

First, let me dismiss one kind of counter-argument. One might respond to this command by asking how many millions A.A. has led back to drinking. People who are not welcome in A.A., or who are not able to become comfortable or find a home in A.A.[*], may consider themselves doomed to addiction, and so return to it. In other words, this argument is that A.A. may have helped people, but it has also hurt people, and since there is no roll taken, no records kept, we can’t decide whether the one outnumber the other. But I’m setting that argument aside. It misses my point.

Grant that A.A. benefits many people. It does not follow from this that A.A. is beyond criticism. That many benefit from something does not mean that it is perfect or good or just.  I’ll try to illustrate my point by describing two typical responses I’ve received.

(1) “If you don’t like the way A.A. works, don’t go to A.A.”

I take it that the gist of this response is that I have other options, and if A.A. isn’t to my taste, I can choose something else. It is not the case that everyone has other options, but let’s consider the idea more deeply. I accept the premise that A.A. cannot obligate me to do or believe anything. But by that very premise, A.A. cannot obligate me to avoid criticizing A.A. or to stop believing that the ideology of A.A. reproduces the structure of domination in society at large. But more chillingly, this response is nothing more than the assertion of power and dominance over the dissenter, and is really not different than saying “take it or leave it.” To me, the reply that I’m free to choose not to go to A.A. if I have criticisms of it is saying that I am not free to go to A.A. and criticize it. In short, as an argument, it is circular reasoning—or else a threat in gentler language.

(2) “If you criticize A.A., you could undermine members’ beliefs in the program, and they could leave and start drinking again.”

Non-believers may be familiar with this response, since they may have been told something similar about discussing atheism: you might undermine someone’s belief in God. Often, proud atheists will say about this that anyone whose faith can be shaken by a little atheism must not have much faith to begin with. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that’s the important point. The response tells us that faith in the “program” is necessary for the recovering alcoholic. This is a premise I don’t accept. I don’t know how it could be demonstrated that “faith” is necessary for recovery from addiction, and I choose to be skeptical of this claim. To most traditional A.A.ers, faith in God is considered necessary for recovery, and I know far too many atheists in recovery to accept that claim. I apply the same reasoning to the notion of faith in the program.

In addition, these responses beg the question of what it means to be a member of A.A. If it really is true that, as the much-ballyhooed third tradition says, “the only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking,” then criticizing the fuck out of A.A. is entirely consistent with membership. I don’t despise A.A. I love my traditional A.A. home group. I love my drug addict, theist friends in that group. I love the atheist, agnostic, secular members I’ve met online, too. I believe that if it weren’t for those people, I would have had a very hard time staying sober. Because I love them and care about them, I speak out about what I perceive to be worth criticizing and worth critique.

Practically speaking, A.A. has a virtual monopoly on alcoholic recovery fellowship. If I believe anything at all in A.A.’s ideology, it’s the value of fellowship. To a great extent, I engage in critique for the sake of the fellowship.

[*] A basic theme of my critique is that the ideology of A.A. produces alcoholic consciousnesses who believe certain things about A.A. and about themselves. Among the things A.A. alcoholics are called on to believe is that the fellowship, a Higher Power, performing the 12 steps, getting a sponsor, and in general adhering to the prescribed “program” are all required in order to stay sober. If an individual resists any of those beliefs, that individual is more or less excluded from the fellowship. That exclusion does not require that the individual is rejected or thrown out. Exclusion is not personal or retributive, at least, not according to the fellowship of the ideology. In fact, the fellowship does not believe that they exclude anyone. But any non-believer is systematically made into a de facto outsider.

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