Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?by Charles Bufe, Stanton Peele
This well researched, painstakingly documented book provides detailed information on the right-wing evangelical organization (Oxford Group Movement) that gave birth to AA; the relation of AA and its program to the Oxford Group Movement; AA's similarities to and differences from religious cults; AA's remarkable ineffectiveness; and the alternatives to AA. The
This well researched, painstakingly documented book provides detailed information on the right-wing evangelical organization (Oxford Group Movement) that gave birth to AA; the relation of AA and its program to the Oxford Group Movement; AA's similarities to and differences from religious cults; AA's remarkable ineffectiveness; and the alternatives to AA. The greatly expanded second edition includes a new chapter on AA's relationship to the treatment industry, and AA's remarkable influence in the media.
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Cult or Cure?
By Charles Bufe
See Sharp PressCopyright © 1998 Charles Q. Bufe
All rights reserved.
A Typical AA Meeting
What is a "typical" AA meeting like? Is there such a thing? A look in the AA "meeting book" for any large metropolitan area reveals a bewildering variety of meetings. A San Francisco meeting book from the early '90s, for example, lists meetings seven days a week with the first starting at 6 a.m. and the last starting at midnight; it lists beginners' meetings, step meetings, open meetings, closed meetings, speaker meetings, discussion meetings, candlelight meetings, women's meetings, lesbian and gay meetings, nonsmokers' meetings, writers' and artists' meetings, meetings for retired seamen, meetings conducted in Spanish — there are even meetings for atheists and agnostics.
Meeting places range from church basements to library conference rooms to hotel lobbies to rented halls. Meeting sizes range from as few as three or four people up to several hundred at the larger weekend meetings. About all that can be said with reasonable certainty is that meetings last an hour to an hour and a half, and even that's not always the case. Still, certain features are common to virtually all AA meetings, and there are many other features which, while not universal, are typical.
If you were to go to a meeting you selected at random, it would probably go something like this:
It's ten minutes before meeting time as you walk through the front door of the AA hall, a large, dingy room reeking of stale tobacco smoke. You walk across the grimy linoleum floor to the coffee urn, pour yourself a cup of what appears to be used motor oil (rumor has it that the stuff will dissolve pencils), grab a couple of cookies, and wander over to one of the 40 or so folding metal chairs facing the table at the front of the room.
The meeting's secretary and the evening's speaker are already seated at the table, smoking cigarettes and slurping coffee. Other people, mostly casually dressed men in the 30s and 40s, are filing in, gradually filling the seats, and gradually filling the air with tobacco smoke. Perhaps half the chairs are taken when the meeting starts.
Precisely on the hour the secretary raps his gavel, introduces himself, and asks two pre-selected members to read the AA Preamble and the Serenity Prayer. Then, since it's a small meeting, everyone in the room introduces himself or herself and is then greeted by the crowd: "My name is Mike. I'm an alcoholic." "Hi Mike!" "My name is Bob. Alcoholic." "Hi Bob!" "Ed. Alcoholic." "Hi Ed!" ... until everyone present has stated his or her name and muttered the magic word, "alcoholic." The secretary then asks any newcomers with less than 30 days sobriety to introduce themselves; he adds that this is only so that the rest of the members can get to know them. One hand timidly goes up in the back row and, after being prompted by the secretary, its owner introduces himself as "Tom"; everyone else loudly says, "Hi Tom," and applauds. The secretary next asks if there are any out-of-towners at the meeting. Since there are none, he goes on to ask if anyone has an anniversary (of months or years of sobriety) that day. No one does, so the secretary concludes by making his only announcement, that of an upcoming "clean and sober" dance at a local AA hangout.
The speaker rises, steps to the podium, introduces himself, and launches into a history of his alcoholism, describing at length and with apparent relish some of his more lurid drinking episodes. He pauses, lights a cigarette, and speaks of how he "bottomed out" — the degradation, humiliation, and hopelessness he felt when he finally realized what alcohol had done to him. He lights another cigarette and recounts how finally, in desperation, he hesitantly walked into an AA meeting despite fears about "the God stuff." After deeply inhaling a puff of tobacco smoke, he describes how his life has never been the same since that day. He kept coming to meetings, even though he still had doubts, because he was attracted to "something" the AA members had which he felt lacking in himself. He lights another cigarette and continues, saying that once he overcame his doubts, began to work the steps, and found his "Higher Power," his life has been transformed and that he literally owes his life to AA. He sits down to polite applause as his cigarette smoke curls upward toward the humming fluorescent lights.
By this time there are only 25 minutes left, and the secretary throws the meeting open to questions and discussion. A hand goes up in the front row and a nearly incoherent but boastful drunkalogue (a recitation of drunken escapades) ensues for ten minutes. Toward the end of it, the secretary passes the collection basket; most of those present chip in a buck or some pocket change. The next member to speak, who has been chafing at the bit during the drunkalogue, takes off on a tangent and describes how by working one of the steps he overcame his frustration after a car accident. One or two others take off on different tangents, and then it's time to end the meeting.
The secretary announces the fact and everyone rises, joins hands, and most say the Lord's Prayer. About a quarter, looking pained or disgusted, remain mute. After a moment of silence, everyone chants, "Keep coming back. It works!" And the meeting is over.
About half of those present leave immediately, while a few busy themselves cleaning up the room, and the rest stand around drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and chatting, two of them paying special attention to the newcomer. Finally, a half-hour after the meeting formally closed, the secretary ushers everyone out into the night.
Not all meetings are like this, however — just a majority. Other writers have described supportive meetings with friendly socializing in a cozy, clublike atmosphere. Such meetings probably exist in abundance, but in my estimation they're outnumbered by meetings of the type I've described here.
I should also point out that only those who blindly, and vocally, embrace the 12 steps are fully welcome at most meetings. Those who have doubts and those who have disagreements with AA dogma are normally ostracized if they express their opinions; and those who remain silent and sit on their doubts will normally be the objects of proselytization and dire warnings, and, if they continue to refuse to mouth accepted AA wisdom, will win, at best, grudging acceptance — if they're strong enough to stand up to the ridicule and condescension they're sure to encounter.
If doubters are fortunate, there will be an "agnostics" or "atheists" meeting in their city where they can commune with their fellow second-class citizens; but such meetings are normally found only in large cities such as San Francisco. In many, probably most, rural areas, small towns, and small cities, a majority of meetings are even more overtly religious than the one I've described here.CHAPTER 2
The Oxford Group Movement: The Forerunner of AA
"... Many a channel had been used by Providence to create Alcoholics Anonymous. And none had been more vitally needed than the one opened through Sam Shoemaker and his Oxford Group associates ... the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else. ... A.A. owes a debt of timeless gratitude for all that God sent us through Sam and his friends in the days of A.A.'s infancy."
— Bill Wilson in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, pp. 39–40
In order to understand Alcoholics Anonymous, it's first necessary to understand the movement which gave birth to AA: The Oxford Group Movement, also known as the Oxford Groups, Buchmanism, and, in its later days, Moral Re-Armament (MRA). The importance of the Oxford Group Movement to the structure, practices, and, especially, the ideology of Alcoholics Anonymous cannot be overstated. The two founders of AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith, were enthusiastic members of the Oxford Groups; the early AA-to-be groups in both Akron and New York operated as part of the Oxford Groups; and both Bill Wilson and "Dr. Bob" believed that the principles of the Oxford Groups were the key to overcoming alcoholism. Thus, AA's bible, Alcoholics Anonymous, the so-called Big Book, in large part reads like a piece of Oxford Group Movement literature, and the 12 steps, the cornerstone of AA ideology, are for all intents and purposes a codification of Oxford Group principles.
The Oxford Group Movement was very much the creature of its founder, Dr. Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman. He was born on June 4, 1878 in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, of conservative, apparently prosperous, Lutheran parents. He attended Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania and graduated in 1899. Following his studies at Muhlenberg, he entered Mount Airy Seminary (Pennsylvania) and graduated in 1902 as an ordained Lutheran minister.
Buchman's first parish was in Overbrook, now a section of Philadelphia, where shortly after his appointment he opened a small hospice for young men. The hospice apparently prospered, because in June 1905 the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States called upon him to open a larger hospice for young men in Philadelphia. He proceeded to do so, but the enterprise was plagued by financial problems. In 1908 Buchman became embroiled in a dispute with the Ministerium's Finance Committee and resigned his position in a huff.
Shortly after resigning, he went to an evangelical conference in Keswick, England. While there he had a "conversion experience" complete with "a poignant vision of the Crucified" while listening to a Salvation Army speaker at a local chapel. Following this experience, he wrote letters of apology to the six members of the Ministerium with whom he had quarreled. (In Oxford Group/Moral Re-Armament literature, much is made of the fact that he received not a single reply. But according to the superintendent of the Ministerium, Dr. J.F. Ohl, world-traveler Buchman didn't bother to put a return address on his letters.) He also "shared" his experience with the family with which he was staying, thus making his first convert, their son.
After returning from England, he applied for and was given a position as YMCA secretary at State College, Pennsylvania effective as of July 1, 1909. At that time the "Y" was more than a series of health clubs; it was an active evangelical association with considerable influence on American college campuses. Buchman built a reputation at State College for conducting well-attended Bible classes and evangelical crusades, and for building up the membership of the YMCA. According to one report, he inflated "Y" membership figures by handing out "free" Bibles to incoming freshmen and then later billing them for "Y" dues. He also instituted the practice of the "Morning Watch" (later called "Quiet Time") in which devotees spent time reading the Bible, praying, and "listening to God."
In 1915 he resigned to go traveling once again, this time to the Far East with evangelist Sherwood Eddy. Upon his return in 1916, he was appointed Extension Lecturer in Personal Evangelism at the Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary. At first, he lived in the students' dormitory — a rather odd thing for a man of 38 to do — but he was asked to move out after students complained of his intrusive methods. He also began to rely on "guidance" (from God) to run his daily life, and encouraged students to do the same. In this way he developed a reputation for being unreliable — "God" would "guide" him to miss appointments, etc. — and students were supposedly "guided" to do things such as booking steamship passage to Europe without having the funds to pay for it. One former Buchmanite (at a different college) later recalled, "I put my trust in guidance and failed my examinations." Buchman also gained a reputation for dwelling on the importance of sexual sin in his dealings with students.
To make matters worse, he was having trouble with members of the faculty at Hartford. Buchman was an evangelical fundamentalist who emphasized emotional experience, and he regarded the classes of his colleagues as not "vital." They returned the contempt by regarding Buchman as a simpleton.
So, it seems probable that this was not an especially happy period in Buchman's life; and he must have been at least somewhat relieved when he received the "guidance" to resign his position. In 1922 he quit his job at Hartford in order to devote himself to "personal evangelism" and to living off the largesse of wealthy backers, activities which he would pursue for the rest of his life. Buchman remained unrepentant about his lavish lifestyle, and that of his close associates, to the end of his days. On many occasions he made remarks similar to one quoted in Time in 1936: "Why shouldn't we stay in 'posh' hotels? Isn't God a millionaire?"
While in Hartford, Buchman had much free time, and thus the opportunity to travel. In Kuling, China in 1918 he organized his first "house-party," a type of gathering which was to become a Buchmanite trademark. Houseparties were in some ways a form of religious retreat and were, at least for their first decade or so, gatherings of no more than a few dozen people in spacious private homes or, more often, expensive inns or hotels. Participants were normally invited to attend through friends or acquaintances already involved with Buchman's movement.
That atmosphere at houseparties was always informal, and activities ranged from Bible study and "quiet times" to bridge playing and golf. There were also voluntary general meetings in which attendees "shared," confessing their "sins" and offering witness to the "change" in their lives caused by adherence to Buchman's principles. A noteworthy feature of houseparties was the upscale economic status of their attendees, and the frequent well-advertised presence of prominent individuals. It was the norm for Buchman and his cohorts to go to great lengths to attract the rich and famous, and, when they were hooked, to shamelessly exploit their names, a tendency which would become more pronounced in the coming years.
While still at Hartford Seminary, Buchman began to hold houseparties at Ivy League colleges in the U.S. and at Oxford and Cambridge in England. This was entirely in keeping with Buchman's background as a YMCA secretary at State College and as a lecturer at Hartford Seminary. Through the mid-1920s, the focus of his ministry would be evangelical work at colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Bryn Mawr. Throughout this period — and indeed throughout his entire life — Buchman retained his obsession with sex. One Harvard graduate is reported to have said, "He started asking me intimate questions about sex before I'd been alone with him for five minutes. I left in a hurry."
Strangely, some Oxford Group/MRA literature almost brags about Buchman's obsession with sex. Perhaps the best examples of this are found in Frank Buchman's Secret, a hagiography by Peter Howard (Buchman's successor as head of MRA) published a few months after Buchman's death in 1961. In describing one of Buchman's "soul surgery" victories, Howard records the following revealing scene:
Buchman said, "You have a very unhappy home."
The atheist answered, "Yes, I have. I hate my father. I always have since I was a boy."
Buchman then said, "You are in the grip of an impure habit which you cannot bring yourself to talk about with anyone."
The atheist answered, "That is a lie." There was silence.
Buchman said, "I must go."...
"No, don't go."
Buchman then said, "Well, I'll stay on one condition — that you and I listen to God together."
The atheist made a surprising reply. He said, "... I told you a lie a few minutes ago. I am in the grip of that habit."
Buchman said, "I know."
In a later chapter, Howard records another instance of Buchman's "soul surgery":
[Buchman] literally shook with the strength of his feelings. "I may have the wrong details," he said, "but I have the right girl, the right diagnosis and the right cure. You are the girl, the diagnosis is that you are sex mad, the cure is Jesus Christ."
In 1924, Buchman's sexual obsession and the obtrusive zeal of some of his converts caused Princeton University's president to ban him. As was usual in his campus crusades, Buchman's followers engaged in high-pressure attempts to get fellow students to "change," followed dubious "guidance" religiously — with predictable social and academic results — thought nothing of invading other students' privacy, and engaged in inappropriate "sharing," much of it of a sexual nature. One chronicler reports that a Buchmanite took "the young and rather innocent daughter" of a Princeton professor out on a date, and proceeded to "share" with her a confession of his sexual sins in fulsome detail.
Excerpted from Alcoholics Anonymous by Charles Bufe. Copyright © 1998 Charles Q. Bufe. Excerpted by permission of See Sharp Press.
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Meet the Author
Charles Bufe is coauthor of Resisting 12-Step Coercion and author of The Heretic's Handbook of Quotations and An Understandable Guide to Music Theory.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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To be a cult a group must follow a man before God. AA puts the Higher Power first.
Really? Who spends all their time writing a full book on the ineffectiveness of AA. How usless, anyone who says AA doesnt work simply hasnt done any of the steps with a good sponsor. Dont waste your time with someones opinions of AA. Its worked for millions of peope and it saves lives so why try to stop people from trying it. Instead of wasting time killing people wy dont you try saving lives yourself
If you haven't read the book, then please don' t write a review. 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. 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. Kudos to the author for the willingness to go against the grain. We need and deserve alternates to 12 step recovery.
I know many lives who have been saved by following the steps getting a sponsor and keep coming back . This book is just one opinion not one I support...
Yep, if you look up the definition of cult, you will find that AA fits the bill. However, a cult that practices love and tolerance and above all telling the truth is my kinda cult. Here's the deal, if you dont follow the steps it doesnt work, duh. I can invent a peanutbutter and jelly donut diet that will help you lose weight but if you dont follow it, you'll get fat again.
Not sure why those who gave this a 5 star review assume all the low star posts have not read the book. It could also be that after reading the book they just didn't agree with the book and felt it was biased toward putting down the 12 step concept.
This book is laughable at best. False claims and poor use of stats.
It seems most of the reviews for this book are more interested in defaming the author and his work a' priori. They are defending a position they already hold rather than reviewing any content of the book. I think without any un-biased reviews you'll just have to make your own call after reading it yourself.
It has saved my life!!!!