Response To Article in Salon

Illegal Even If It Did Work

Opposing The Twelve Step Movement
On Penalty Of Death

by Cliff Walker

Copyright ©2001 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon

March, 2001

Salon posted an article by Arianna Huffington called “It’s Not about Church and State: Two Words for the Bible-Thumpers and Lefties Who Are Trashing Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative: Alcoholics Anonymous.” This article touts Alcoholics Anonymous as the perfect example of why we ought to funnel millions of tax dollars toward religious instruction and proselytizing efforts. The author’s reasoning? Get this: The author says, “The evidence is overwhelming that it’s infinitely harder to rebuild shattered lives without acknowledging the spiritual dimension of human nature.”

Oh, really? As an activist both within and later against the Twelve Step faith-based partnership, this is news to me. According to AA’s own Triennial Survey of its membership (conducted every three years, of course), of 100 people who join AA today, only about five of them will still be there a year from now. In five years, that figure will shrink to a mere 1.6 to 2.6 percent. These figures have remained consistent for decades. Compare this with the figures describing the natural outgrowth of a substance problem: of Americans who say they’ve ever had a substance problem but have since solved that problem, fully 80 percent claim they either outgrew the problem naturally, or buckled down and took care of it on their own, without any outside help whatsoever.

The Triennial Surveys are AA’s own figures, showing the recidivism rate for a program that, theoretically, you join for life. These figures are in stark contrast to the lofty claims made in AA’s “Big Book” and parroted by AA’s loyal supporters — AA members who are so well trained that they think they criticize the core elements of AA on penalty of death. I kid you not. In the Twelve Step mind-set, your sobriety — and thus your very life — is conditioned on your active participation in the Program’s proselytizing efforts.

The Twelve Step programs do not teach permanent abstinence, but a temporary “daily reprieve” which is conditioned on the subject’s active participation in the program’s proselytizing efforts (including writing to Salon and telling Salon’s readers that AA works). It is also conditioned, according to the “Big Book,” upon belief in a rescuing deity, which AA calls variously “God” and “Him” — a specific deity who answers prayers and, according to Step Six, is able to “remove all our defects of character,” an event for which the AA member is expected to “become entirely ready.”

And woe to the man, woman, or child who’d dare criticize Alcoholics Anonymous. You need not be in a position to face “jails, institutions, degradation, and death” if you say a bad word about AA: I’ve been threatened and even beat up for contradicting AA’s claim that you need to “Get a God or die.” While I cannot post the dozens of vicious telephone calls I’ve fielded at all hours over the course of several years, I was able to post a particularly telling letter.


But the fact that AA does not work but for a tiny fraction of those who try it — the fact that AA’s alleged success rates are flat-out lies — is not the issue at all. Even if AA worked as claimed in the AA “Big Book,” curing everyone who tries it within two or three attempts, for government to financially support teaching its methods is highly illegal. Several courts, starting with the New York Court of Appeals (1996), have ruled that AA meets the criteria of religious activity as defined by the First Amendment: “A fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious,” the court ruled. “Adherence to the A.A. fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization” (Griffin v Coughlin).

Court-ordered and institutionally coerced participation in AA violates the Free Exercise clause of the United States Constitution. State entanglement with AA, particularly state subsidization of AA-based “treatment” programs, constitutes a state endorsement of a particular religious view. By forcing citizens to undergo AA-based re-education, the state coerces its citizens to accept a specific self-identity, that is, specific, and highly structured world-view that is religious and cannot be called neutral or secular. Even if the issue were not religion, even if it were, say, cognitive therapy that the state was ordering, this violates the freedom of conscience and freedom of thought elements in the First Amendment — the very foundation of even the Religious Liberty aspects of that amendment. A brief overview of Jefferson’s and Madison’s discussions along these lines will contrast starkly with the gulag mindset which is the notion of forced re-education — with or without the religious element.

In our most recent edition, we reprinted portions of the original draft of Gene Garman’s masterful piece for Liberty magazine, “Justice Rehnquist’s Abuse Of History.” In it, Garman points out that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” cannot refer to a state religion simply because this would destroy the meaning of the following clause, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The word thereof refers directly to the word religion, and certainly we need no Constitutional Amendment to protect the “free exercise” of a state religion! Garman also documents the fact that the specific language describing the simple prohibition of a state church was discussed and rejected by the framers of the Constitution. Garman goes on to call the so-called Lemon Test (Lemon v. Kurtzman) a compromise, since the Constitution prohibits the very establishment of any religion — not merely “excessive entanglement” with religion. Today, even the compromised protections of Lemon are in grave danger.

The fact that we have not only financially supported and actually institutionalized various Twelve Step proselytizing efforts, but have sent people such as myself to jail simply for refusing, on religious grounds, a court-ordered coercion to undergo this patently coercive religious instruction, has set a grave precedent which our nation is feeling today in the form of Bush’s and Gore’s various proposals for faith-based partnerships. Kiss our Constitution goodbye? For all intents and purposes, it’s already out the window — defenestrated in the interest of tribal totem loyalism reminiscent of the stone age.


Institutionalized AA: does it work? It’s no better or worse than either the cognitive approach (a la REBT) or the behavioral approach (a la Schick-Shadel), according to a highly controlled study made in San Diego during the 1960s. Institutionalized AA: does it work? It’s no better than no treatment at all, according to George Vaillant’s long-term study.

What causes people to give up a drug-or alcohol problem? Jack Trimpey, founder of Rational Recovery, Jeffrey Schaler, co-founder of SMART Recovery, Stanton Peele, author of several books and founder of the Life Process Program (the “European model”), and several others say that the habit becomes more costly in personal terms than it’s worth in pleasure value, either through social and financial loss or through legal difficulties. According to George Vaillant, who, incidentally, favored treatment, most people naturally outgrow their addictive behaviors.

What promotes continued dependency on drugs and alcohol in the face of these dire consequences? Trimpey, Schaler, Peele, Chaz Bufe, Rebecca Fransway, Vince Fox [deceased], Ken Regge, myself, and many others who have struggled in this field point to the defeatist attitudes fostered by the disease-and-powerlessness model upon which Alcoholics Anonymous is based. Trimpey goes so far as to blame America’s mass addiction problem on the popularization of this extremely religious dogma.

The Alcoholics Anonymous method is based entirely upon inducing a religious conversion experience. AA co-founder Bill Wilson, while recuperating from a particularly vicious jag, was given the powerful hallucinogen belladonna. About the same time, he was urged to seek God as a last resort. He wrote,


the effect was electric. There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had never known. There was utter confidence. I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountain top blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound.
— “Big Book,” Chapter 1


I have taken belladonna and can fully relate — except that I remain an atheist in spite of the profound hallucinogenic experiences induced by that drug. I don’t blame anyone who would come to the same conclusions as Wilson. That Wilson connected the use of hallucinogens with religious experience is not limited to this initial conversion experience. During the late 1950s, Wilson experimented with LSD expressly for the purpose of furthering his religious experience — or so he claimed: many during the 1960s used this same reasoning to justify their own recreational psychedelic voyages. (I even used that ruse myself, as a teenager, when the family discovered that I had “experimented” with psychedelic drugs, quickly running for “cover” in the Baptist church youth group where all the kids hung out in those days. I still cannot tell you which aggravated the parents more: the drugs or the religion, we having been an atheistic family for many generations. Maybe they’d simply caught on to my little Wilsonesque or Learywise coverup!)

So, a psychedelic religious conversion experience worked for Bill Wilson after he had been pronounced hopeless. Part of the conversion involves impressing upon the subject a keen sense of helplessness. Out of this, the subject imagines a greater, more complete reality than the problems she or he is experiencing, and grasps upward, toward that reality. AA makes a big thing of powerlessness, and this is only natural: a person who is hooked on drugs is under the influence of an insidiously profound sense of pleasure while on the drug, and an equally pronounced absence of pleasure when the drug wears off. The urge to repeat the drug experience, according to Trimpey, becomes connected to a primordial part of the brain associated with the appetites for food and sex. (I describe and promote this model in “The Chocolate Easter Beast,” lauded by several, including Trimpey, as one of the most vivid and easy-to-grasp descriptions of RR’s model.)


Unfortunately, Bill Wilson capitalized on his not-so-unique religious experience, institutionalizing it and packaging it for the mass market. His side-organization, the National Council on Alcoholism, had the freedom to lobby for AA and the disease model in ways that AA itself, through its traditions, was required to remain silent on “outside issues.” An entire branch of medicine eventually grew up around the NCA’s promotion of the disease model of helplessness and the avoidance of accountability for one’s actions. And naturally this industry was staffed exclusively by members of Wilson’s organization. To this day, it is almost impossible to get a job in addiction “treatment” if one is openly critical of the AA Program. And in the minds and rhetoric of many of AA’s supporters, to publicly criticize AA is tantamount to murder because you are dissuading people from availing themselves of allegedly life-saving help (which has been shown to be little or no help at all).

AA and its supporters say one thing to the public, but send another message entirely to the membership. The public is told that AA not only works but is the only thing that works. The members are told that they will never rid themselves of the “disease” of addiction, but will always be in a state of “recovering but never recovered.” One cannot recover without the program and without faith in the AA god, and when shown that people do recover outside the program, a few go so far as to suggest that these people never really had a problem to begin with. But these who allegedly did not have a problem are inevitably counted among AA’s successes if they so much as attended a single meeting. Go figure.

The public is told that millions and millions have joined AA. But those members who do stay witness, first-hand, an almost complete turnaround of AA’s membership each year, with new people coming in and then dropping out of the program within weeks or months after they joined. All the while, whenever the group stands together in a circle, holding hands and reciting the (very Christian) “Lord’s Prayer,” the members then chant to each other: “Keep coming back! It works!”


So, we’re being asked to support AA because it works? No. It does not work, and a case can be made that its defeatist philosophy of temporary, conditional abstinence actually promotes the very addiction it claims to cure. Even if it did, for us to finance religious instruction is opposed to the very foundation of our Constitution, which was erected as a direct result of the abuses inherent in the collusion between religion and government, and the accompanying doctrine of the divine right of kings.

Copyright (c)2001 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon









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Copyright (c)2001 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon