How Fundamentalist AA can be Dangerous to Recovering Alcoholics

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There is nothing wrong with a 12 step program unless it limits you in your growth. When taken to an extreme this is exactly what can happen though.

A fundamentalist in AA is someone who, upon hearing a new idea about how to recover from alcoholism, first checks to see if that idea is compatible with the 12 step model. If it’s not in the Big Book, they discard the idea without further investigation. This is fundamentalism. It ignores outside ideas about recovery while still claiming open-mindedness.

In fundamentalist AA, open-mindedness is only considered to be virtuous if you are exploring the 12 step program. Things that fall outside of AA dogma simply become “outside issues” that really “do not pertain to recovery” at all.

For example, the fundamentalist in AA is likely to dismiss the idea that a holistic approach can be more powerful than the spiritual approach, and claim that things such as exercise, emotional balance, and education are not important in maintaining sobriety. The only solution for them is through strict adherence to AA principles. Even though the Big Book of AA says “more will be revealed” and “we know only a little,” the fundamentalist ignores these ideas and elevates the rest of the Big Book to ultimate and complete knowledge.

Not everyone in AA does this. Only the fanatical fundamentalist does this, which can give a bad image to the whole program. The program is actually quite sound and helpful. Taking it to an extreme is what gets us into trouble.

Fundamentalism is a fear-based response that is driven by a need to reinforce one’s own recovery program. We see people relapsing all around us in recovery and the fundamentalist is clinging to the belief that only the devout and hard-core follower can truly make it in the long run.

Your solution should change over time

Fundamentalism is dangerous to recovery because your solution needs to change over time. In other words, what kept you sober at 30 days clean will not keep you sober at 3 years clean or at 10 years clean. You have to grow and change and evolve in order to keep maintaining sobriety. This is part of the creative process and it is a good thing, as long as you continue to use the 3 strategies and engage in positive action.

With fundamentalism the solution never changes, and exploring new ideas in recovery is frowned upon. The fundamentalist argues that the solution is already well laid out in the 12 step program, so why deviate and look to other means? The creative holistic approach argues that this is limiting their growth, and seeks to push themselves outside the boundaries of the 12 step program.

If you are involved in a 12 step program there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The only danger is if that program is limiting your growth in some way. Beware of extremists who claim that they have all the answers (while still claiming to be open-minded).

The key to long term recovery is creation through purposeful growth and passionate living. If a 12 step program is stifling that drive then it is worth changing meetings or seeking alternatives. There are some in AA who are truly open minded and living a creative life but you must seek them out and go beyond traditional 12 step dogma in order to replicate their success.


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  • Ned

    Well said. There are people who look at the fundamentalist and think that is all 12 step groups are about. They miss the value in the steps and the fellowship.

    And the fundamentalist forgets, as you stated quite well, that open mindedness is what has kept 12 step groups alive along with its members.

    You have a very insightful approach to recovery. I like it.

  • Patrick

    Thanks, Ned. I’m glad this post did not come off as being anti-12 step because that is not the intent…I’m merely cautioning against being an extremist.

    There is definite value in the 12 step program and it did serve as a foundation for me in early recovery.

  • Ian

    I think it should be pointed out though, that sometimes the entire “Big Book” method isn’t right. For a lot of people it is, but there are others who need a completely different approach. For example, relying on their own will power, and not a higher power, or even in certain cases, not embracing abstinence as the only solution.

    Remember, some of the core ideas of the 12 step solution are not scientific, in many cases they work, but in some they don’t, and in a few, they can even make things worse. There have been studies that show that AA members are more likely to suffer far worse relapses than those who quit with other methods. It’s been suggested that this is due to the belief that a single drink will spiral them out of control. Others might admit the single drink was a lapse in judgment and will themselves to stop. AA members are convinced that they no longer control their own decisions.

  • Patrick

    An interesting point, Ian. Though I would suspect that many in AA would argue that:

    1) They have higher quality of sobriety than other methods, and

    2) They have higher success rates than other methods, even in spite of more violent relapses.

    Sometimes you just can’t win with something like this….it is like arguing over religion almost. But I agree with you that some people can get sober only after venturing beyond the big book and the 12 step philosophy.

  • Brett

    AA fundamentlism, or rather, those in AA who cannot see outside of their own individual reality…

    is rather ruining my AA experience these days.

    In the beginning, I just went with the flow and stayed sober and didn’t question the member propagated dogma… why would I, (?) it was working for me at that time in my life.

    But as I matured as an individual, in sobriety, I begin to do things specifically catered to my own recovery.

    After some years of trial and error
    I found that some of the things that worked for me really flew in the face of AA norms.

    However, I sort of kept my anomalies to myself so as not to “rock the boat”, as it were.

    I would still like to attend the occasional meeting, as I still have a lot of friends there, but I am finding it less and less validating to have to sit there and bite my tounge… and when i do go and allow myself to speak honestly, from my own perspective, on a major AA tenet that I have a different view on than most…

    I inevitably have to put up with the unsolicited advice of those seeking to save me from some dire mistake I am in the process of making.

    I keep showing up occasionaly thinking that I am going to experience some of the vitality I used to….

    But I am certain…

    AA is the same as it always was,

    But I have changed.

    Thank God


  • Patrick

    Wow….pretty profound comment there Brett. Very interesting perspective you have there. Glad to see you are thinking critically about it. Keep us posted on your experience, please!

  • edward

    Hello to Patrick, Brett and Ian,

    I am very late to respond to this article.

    I think it is very useful and helpful to discuss what works for different addicts to stay clean and sober.

    There is a passage in AA literature that clearly states that AA members should always welcome and support new approaches to staying clean and suber…after all it is in the same pursuit.

    I was always told to me wary of “preaching deacons” in AA as they were dry but not really sober.

    I have completed 30 years of clean time…and as my first sponsor told me…go the gym or a well…and in the early days…keep something sweet with you when the urge to drink came over you. Also if I didn’t like the tone and tenor of a particular meeting…stop going and find meetings where I felt comfortable and welcomed…and open to my views on the program.

    I have done so many things with my life…gone to meetings in Asia,the Middle East, Africa and in Europe where I now live a splendid life. I have done many outside activities that have enhanced by life away from AA. However, at the core of my life is the AA 12 step program…it is constant….”repetition is the mother of all knowledge”…and this core allows me to explore myself in greater depth…and the world at large.

    I respect everyone’s opinion…as my first sponsor drilled into me….everyone has an opinion…you may disagree with it…but always respect it…and that mantra remains with me to this day.

    Easy does it and enjoy the journey.


  • Toni


    Sober 16 years through AA. Couldn’t do it any other way and wouldn’t want to. Fighting dogma at the moment, this Fellowship is too important to me. We have people in the district at the moment telling newcomers it’s their way to do the steps or the highway. Of course they’re all under 10 years….!! I’ve seen dogma in AA run riot in Canberra a decade ago and it wasn’t pretty. Stick win the winners I say. Good to know I’m not alone, great article.

  • BA

    What I have seen in the program is that they try to program you differently with ‘fear’ that without meeting these dudes in the Fellowship, taking the sponsor and making meetings – you can never stay sober ! This is a cult – that lures and makes people ‘think’ that nothing works -except AA, and at the end the poor soul is really ‘hooked’. Most of the people there are ‘programmed’ to believe nothing – but AA. They are quick to ‘shut down’ any other avenues. These are people who are ‘dependent’ ! It’s nice to see that people have remained sober – but at what cost ? – Once an alcoholic always an alcoholic ? I abhor such dependent programs.

  • J

    After having been sober for just a few months I have developed a growing concern/curiosity about whether or not AA is in fact a dangerous program. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a very positive experience with the program. More specifically, it’s been helpful for me to be able to identify with people that have had struggles that similar to some of my own.

    However, I am starting to see that if I were to challenge say the advice of another member who is asking me to do something, I might get written off as being insincere about my desire to live without alcohol or drugs. Further, that my lack of a need to explore and or become engulfed in the fellowship would be viewed as a direct result of a lingering shortcoming that lives in my “alcoholic mind”. Moreover, that my peers in AA might not be my peers if I wasn’t in AA… Not all of my friends drink in a way that is problematic, and they don’t give a damn if I’m in AA or not, they are still my friends. So my fear is that if you buy in all the way and or become a fanatic, that your new life of sobriety as you know it can only exist in AA– therefore the word cult comes to my mind.

    I just wanted to stop drinking so much, and I wondered if I my drinking was a product of the poor position that I had been in for an undesirable amount of time (tough job market) or if I really had a problem. Naturally, I have found that I have some similarities with people in the group (we were all abusing the same drug), and since I haven’t been drinking I feel much better. Now it seems that the program is all about living to another extreme, one drink means a million and that you will die in a gutter!

    So here is the fear that’s bread within the program: without AA, your “friends” disappear, and your life outside the program is doomed. My thoughts are that this is what may be dangerous about the program. It’s cult like to say the least, because its conditional and supported by fear. That said, you can be a rock star in AA one day and a dry drunk and a loser that is bound for certain failure the next, whether or not you pick up a drink!

    Moreover, I am concerned about the structure of the steps. Again, please don’t get me wrong here, there are two sides to each of them. One that can be useful, and another that can be harmful. For the sake of what I can salvage from brevity, I won’t go through each one, just the first few ideas.

    1. You have no power, but the group does
    2.Come to believe in a power other than ourselves-traditional religion is constantly mocked.
    3. Surrender to the group (higher power)
    4. Give someone leverage over you by telling them things that you don’t care to remember and do not bother you.

    Here again, I think its good idea to give up on trying to have just one drink if you can’t, spirituality is a good thing, enthusiasm that their certainly is a god is even better and that baggage can drag you downward. In addition, I don’t think its bad that a sober person exercises their clear mind to make good decisions and or be decent to other human beings. Certainly some benefits to the program, which I am pleased to have been able to experience for myself.

    In summary, life is better without drugs and or alcohol when it is taken to extremes (one in the same). I’m just not sure about how I might best proceed. Any comments would be very much appreciated.

  • Patrick

    Very good points, J.

    I never thought about the contradiction that you point out with step 2, and how AA folks are always insulting traditional religion.

    Thanks for your viewpoint. Very insightful! Take care….

  • john

    Big Book doesn’t say “more will be revealed.” That’s the story section of NA Basic Text. This blog ignores the CONTEXT of fundamentalism. It’s perfectly appropriate and useful to carry the AA message at an AA meeting. People with other messages have hundreds of other forums to carry their alternate messages. AA has survived for over 70 yrs. because it focuses on the spiritual problem and spiritual solution, which are timeless. AA doesn’t change to adopt every recovery fad, not does it claim to be “the only way” or “last word”. It’s just a method that’s worked for many previously hopeless drunks. AA members who take all the Steps find that their lives improve in all areas. The Steps ARE a “holistic” approach.

  • Patrick

    @ John – Spirituality is but one sliver of holism.

    An holistic approach includes things like nutrition, fitness, mental health, emotional health, etc.

    The 12 steps are focused fairly narrowly on spirituality………and I have too many friends in AA who have died in the last 5 years who were out of shape, obese, and continued to smoke cigarettes.

  • john

    Spirituality allows an OPPORTUNITY to practice healthy lifestyle. It’s not an end to itself. It’s a bridge to a new life. “When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally AND physically.” BB at 64. Drunks fail in recovery precisely because they claim that they cannot master alcohol until their MATERIAL needs are cared for. BB at 98. Overconcentration on temporal issues is actually the biggest single OBSTACLE to recovery. Millions of drunks have joined health clubs while they were drinking, so that they could feel better. Never worked.

  • john

    Big Book doesn’t mention “surrender”, let alone “surrender to the group”. Don’t know where that impression is coming from. It’s not in the AA literature. Group doesn’t have Power. There is One with ALL Power, and that’s not the Group. “All” is a very high percentage. The three pertinent ideas explicity say “that probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.” BB at 60 .

  • Patrick

    I agree those are valid points, John! I don’t necessarily think you are wrong and I am right, or anything like that.

    But consider this: you are defending AA by quoting the literature….but the problems that stem from fundamentalism come more from the fellowship, rather than the big book. People are fallible. I am not knocking AA so much as knocking the extremist in AA. My personal experience in AA found extremism in nearly every meeting I went to.

    I agree that some can and do work the steps and find an holistic approach to recovery in doing so. But the 12 steps to not prescribe holism….

    I do appreciate the discussion, and I do think you have good ideas. I still maintain that a recovery solution needs to evolve if you are actually growing in recovery….

  • john

    “Be quick to see where religious people are right. Make use of what they offer.” BB at 87. Is that the kind of “insults” you’re referring to? Have you read any of the AA literature, or are you just relying on the propaganda of two notorious “anti-AA” bloggers?

  • john

    That’s a reasonable response, Patrick. Thank you. I agree that there’s often a huge gap between AA , as written, and AA, as practiced, by some members. There is no Disciplinary Board in AA to purge members who stray from the message. Alcohol usually does the purging.

  • Patrick

    I like your opinion, John, even if I do not agree with it 100 percent, and I will make you an offer:

    If you would like, I will let you write an article that is supportive of AA, and I will publish it on my website (it will also go out to all of my regular readers). It would be read by over ten thousand people. Of course you could remain anonymous. We could preface it: “This article is not the voice of AA, it is but one man’s experience in AA” or something like that.

    I am in favor of offering multiple viewpoints about recovery to my audience, and I believe your viewpoint is as valid as mine. We obviously have had our own unique experiences, but ultimately, I think we both want to help the newcomer.

    So, if you would like, write something up, and I will publish it.

    Thanks again for your input here. I do appreciate the discussion (and I think readers can benefit from it as well, which is why I am offering to publish your viewpoint more publicly).

  • john

    My goodness, that’s a very sober proposal, Patrick. I’m serious. I accept.

  • Hpyhikn

    My sponsor is insisting I tell her all of my sex partners even the consensual ones. I told her that no harm was committed with these but she insists I will relapse if I don’t tell all. Why? Whom does it benefit?

  • Boston

    AA is based on a Cartesian Circle. You don’t have to believe in anything but a higher power, but in the end you must come to know God. They say the Our Father after meetings. Everyone is negative. When they talk about Step Four, it’s like they never worked on personal development before AA. And I have heard nothing that deals with self-examination from them. Real introspection and self-improvement have yet to be revealed by anyone I have ever seen at a meeting.

    Many other countries medical communities have a different concept of alcoholism. it is the scientific one. In Russia, they believe we are all alcoholics–just at different levels. Anyone can see this is true by a simple brain chemical study. You drink yourself drunk for one year, and you’ll find you brain chemistry is that of an alcohol user. You can’t sleep because what alcohol does to the brain, your brain gets lazy about doing. After a period of abstinence, these issues should be resolved. The best estimate I ever got from a neuroscientist was 13 months maximum.

    People in AA always tell a story of how drinking woke something up within them, or how it lubricated social moments, or gave them confidence. If alcohol became a drug to you like that, then you have to find a way to deal with these issues–because there is a huge psychological addiction issue there.

    But if you want reliable alcohol treatment, all you need to do is see your doctor. You’ll need to discuss a sleep aid and maybe even a daytime pill if you have acute or chronic anxiety. I avoided anything but a sleep aid that would help best for quitting booze, and just for the first week or so. I switched from butts to nicotine gum, and increased my run/weights schedule to now include an evening walk–clear the head. In the end, if you are a whole person, not much else beyond talk therapy should be necessary.

    AA is a good bet for weak, empty people who need something to plug into and replace with drinking. However, the meetings can be fun and insightful if you find one where good people go. There are tons of awesome and accomplished and brilliant people in AA. I recommend checking it out. It works for strong, full people, too–but the only way it can is with a mind to avoiding its rigidity. For me, attending meetings on and off during the waning days of my drinking helped me–and I made a few friends who are just great.

    I would also recommend reading books about drinking by those who “recovered.” If, like me, most of your friends were not alcoholics–great. It was easier to “ban” myself from bars, liquor stores and people who I’d shared those ‘good times.” If most of them are drinking buddies, you have to lead by example. You may have to choose new friends, hobbies and other stuff. but whatever you do–do not do just AA. Take a holistic approach to your health. Be wary of sponsors, too. There is no need to tell people your personal business. There are also alternates to AA, such as Rational Recovery.

    My final decision was to leave AA altogether. MY program is continuing this awesome ride called life minus one very unnecessary thing: booze. Until AA really learns what self-examination is and stops being largely a meeting where people “sell’ the program and speak mainly in negativity–it’ll never work. Oh, and as for working, AA has no empirical data supporting it does. I think the quote is that it has “helped” 2M people. Way more than that quit without AA, and AA seems to breed relapse for some. AA tells the non AA person in sobriety that she is a dry drunk–that’s just empty people who are wet with the booze of AA.

  • Patti Herndon

    “Drunk”…”Dry Drunk” ? As a society, we’ve evolved past this old, offensive language regarding addiction. Most people recognize that it is counter-productive to use these kinds of stigma-perpetuating terms. If we are going to take the time and energy to write/speak about our views regarding addiction with the intent of supporting/encouraging health and well being; choosing terms that avoid negative association should be a priority.

    Labels limit. Let’s encourage one another toward an increasing awareness and use of transformative language -language that serves the change process/personal growth/self-efficacy…better lived moments.

  • aacultwatch

    Please see above website in connection with the above discussion – it may be of interest


    The Fellas (Friends of Alcoholics Anonymous)

  • David

    I have left AA in the past over the Bill and Bob fanboyism/fundamentalism and frankly when in the past I joined with the anti-AA movement out of my resentment towards people who weren’t even truly doing what the literature said, it was almost ALL over people within AA violating the traditions. I went back recently because I missed the meetings(despite the fruit cakes who turn a beautiful program/spirituality into the cult of Bill W.). I have been obsessively reading the big book trying to understand all of this as I believed I was an Atheist. Turns out(and when I was a Nichiren Buddhist and simply have no religion now-people tried to tell me I was a Pantheist and I wouldn’t listen), my Pantheism is in harmony with “We Agnostics”. I really felt at times that Christianity was being pushed on me which would make me bolt. Now through reading the traditions I understand that people who do that are CONTRADICTING the very book they are worshipping and treating as a holy relic. People who are the AA fundamentalists will flat out lie, contradict the book, use emotional blackmail, and act like bullies when you don’t agree. There are more “normal” AA members than the fruitcakes so I am simply going to be polite towards them and if they overstep a boundary, I’ll tell them to go look up “fanboyism” and suggest to them they go inventory that and stop worrying about what I’m doing as it’s working for me(basically telling them to fuck off). One that really chapped my ass recently and I have to let it go because it disturbs my peace of mind is people demanding that you agree that because you went back out, what you did didn’t work. Doesn’t matter whether you have had YEARS in the past, it didn’t work. That contradicts the book because according to the book if a person lets up on the spiritual path of action(if the solution they follow comes out of the book and even the book acknoledges that it is not the ONLY way, it is ONE way despite what the fruitcake fanboys demand people believe), then the DESIRE will come back. We let up on our laurels, we go back out. Demanding that I LIE about what worked and demanding that I FORGET everything I’ve learned simply because I went back out after having real time FREE of the desire to drink is asinine religious baffoonery, cult of Bill W, AA fundamentalism, bullshit, NOT the AA program. What is even more annoying is when the very people who turn it into the cult of Bill W, call them on this and they quote “this is a spiritual program and not a religious one”. Next time I hear that I’m going to tell them that if they REALLY believe that, don’t act like a religious fruitcake about AA(better to not get into it with them in the first place I think). Interesting article!

  • Bullshit

    And where did you see aas recovery rate? There is none it’s all anonymous
    Aa is a bullshit mind control cult that scares you into their beliefs with death

  • fernsoles

    Strict AA is only successful for very few. I love my religion and AA works directly against it. You really cannot have faith in the God of your
    understanding, unless it is the AA version of God. Tell them you’re a devout Catholic and see what happens. Try using the God-given gift
    of critical thinking and see what happens. You’ll be welcome like the flu, or aids. Sorry, that DOES NOT keep me sober. Don’t tell me I don’t have the ability to be honest. Clean & sober today without AA.