The anti-intellectualism of AA and the 12 Step Doctrine
One of the most worrying aspects of the 12 Step ideology, to anyone of a thoughtful and enquiring mind, is its insistence that one must abandon the use of reason and the asking of legitimate questions, accepting AA’s assertions instead through some sort of leap of faith.
This approach is made clear at a person’s first attendance at an AA meeting. Typically, the newcomer is told to just listen to what is said by existing members, rather than take an active part or ask questions. They are also told to “look for the similarities, not the differences”. Thus they are advised from the outset to overlook things which are said which conflict with their own understanding and experience, which is already implicitly denigrated.
In practice, this leaves the newcomer with little to identify with beyond the bare fact that they have the experience of having drunk problematically in common with others present.
This instruction to concentrate on the similarities between what they hear at meetings and their own experience would really be quite unnecessary if a large part of the content of the meeting did not consist of the presentation of ideas which might affront their reason and common sense.
The advice “look for the similarities” is really a veiled admonition that newcomers should discard their critical faculties, and not ask awkward but pertinent questions regarding the true agenda of the meeting. Telling newcomers that they should only listen rather than speak helps ensure that no difficult questions are raised, for instance, regarding the obvious religiosity of the meeting’s format.
As newcomers continue to attend meetings (assuming they do) they become increasingly immersed in a closed world where critical thought is strongly discouraged by peer pressure reinforced with the use of thought-stopping cliches, and a sneering disdain for the intellect exemplified by the slogan “your best thinking got you here”, amongst many others.
The “drunkalogues”, in which members recount stories of the damage alcohol did to them, may remain the only “similarity” they can relate to, but they mostly end with an impassioned endorsement of AA’s program as the only thing which could save the speaker, and by implication other alcoholics, from certain destruction.
Meanwhile, the aspects of AA ideology which the newcomer found unreasonable or unacceptable, and was disingenuously advised to overlook, are being gradually absorbed, almost by osmosis, through repeated exposure to them within an enclosed group of mutually-affirming true believers. In this environment, reality can be effectively re-defined for the duration of the meeting and beyond.
Despite himself, the newcomer is now becoming saturated with messages he may have found unreasonable and unacceptable on a frequent and regular basis, if he follows the injunction to go to thirty meetings in thirty days. When he reads AA literature (as he will have been strongly urged to do) he again encounters an aggressive anti-intellectualism, coupled with a belligerent insistence that the only insurance against an alcoholic death is the acceptance of a perverse and wayward form of religious practice. The sneering and dismissive tone adopted towards anyone with reservations about adopting the doctrine elaborated in the “Big Book” is shown by this quote from “Doctor Bob” Smith:
“If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you”.
One has to ask why AA has such a strong anti-intellectual bias. I think it can only be because it sees critical and analytical thought as threatening to its precepts. In other words, AA’s message simply does not stand up to rational examination, hence the intellect is treated with scorn and contempt to try to preempt such examination.
Fear of the intellect, as well as hatred and contempt for it, to the extent that the very word “intellectual” is a term of abuse, are typical of totalitarian states from Nazi Germany to Maoist China. They are also well-documented features of totalist cults.