More Revealed

AA: Cult or Cure?

The Oxford Groups & AA:
Similarities & Differences

"Our debt to them [the Oxford Group Movement] . . . was and is immense."

—Bill Wilson in Alcoholics Anonymous Come of Age, p. 73

It would be surprising if anyone who read the two preceding chapters didn't notice certain similarities between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Oxford Group Movement, for similarities abound in ideology, operation, and style.

AA took its central doctrines virtually unchanged from Frank Buchman's Oxford Groups. This can be seen clearly in the 12 steps, the cornerstone of AA's program. The following chapter is devoted entirely to the 12 steps, so for now suffice it to say that the Buchmanite principles of personal powerlessness and the necessity of divine guidance are embodied in steps 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 11; the principle of confession is embodied in steps 4, 5, and 10; the principle of restitution to those one has harmed is embodied in steps 8 and 9; and the principle of continuance, of continuing to practice the other Buchmanite principles and to carry the word to other "defeated" persons ("alcoholics," in the steps) is embodied in steps 10 and 12.

To spell out some of these correspondences in more detail: AA inherited the Oxford Group Movement belief that human beings in themselves are powerless, and that only submission to God's will is sufficient to solve human problems. It also inherited the belief that God will guide anyone who "listens." An additional Buchman legacy is the belief that it's necessary for human beings to confess their "wrongs" (in AA) or "sins" (in the Oxford Groups); as well, both groups employ(ed) both private and public confessions. The Oxford Groups emphasized private confessions from "sinners" to individual "soul surgeons," and public confessions at houseparties, while AA emphasizes private confessions from "pigeons" (newcomers being indoctrinated with the AA program) to "sponsors" (experienced members responsible for indoctrinating individual newcomers) and public confessions at AA meetings.

A closely related concept, common to both AA and the Oxford Groups, is belief in the necessity of "sharing." This term embraces both private and public confessions, but also encompasses giving "witness," both private and public. In AA, this concept is embedded in the twelfth step as the injunction "to carry this message to alcoholics." While AA has for the most part dropped the term "sharing" (which is now usually associated with new agers and the Brie and Chablis set), it still adheres to it religiously.

Another point of ideological correspondence between the two organizations is that AA, in exactly the same manner as the Oxford Groups, ignores social, political, and economic factors as causes of personal and social problems. AA concerns itself solely with alcohol abuse (more properly, with its own program for "alcoholics"), but even though its focus is narrower than that of the Oxford Groups, its approach is identical. Nowhere in the dozens of books and pamphlets published by AA will you find even a hint that there is any cause of alcoholism (or even contributory factors) other than the alcoholic him (or her) self.

This extreme emphasis on individual responsibility rather than social factors, and the accompanying belief in the necessity of divine guidance, implies acceptance of the political-economic status quo and a marked disinterest in, and at times outright hostility to, political activism. Critics recognized this tendency in the Oxford Groups well before Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob joined the Oxford Group Movement and organized within it what was to become AA.i In 1932, Frank Buchman expressed his anti-political activist attitude in as callous a manner as is imaginable. In that year, when tens of millions were unemployed, with a very large number of them homeless and hungry, well-fed Frank Buchman stated: "The President's social trends report indicates there will surely be a revolution in this country. We are going to make it a spiritual revolution. What hunger marchers need is to be changed."ii Buchman didn't say a word about food, housing, or employment; he knew what the poverty stricken really needed—"guidance."

In present-day AA, this anti-activist tendency is not as extreme as it was in the Oxford Groups, but it's still so obvious that observers who know next to nothing of AA's history or that of its predecessor, the Oxford Group Movement, find it striking. One such observer, Ellen Herman, notes: "The [12-step] programs' core concept . . . is decidedly apolitical . . . In particular, the programs' philosophy . . . emphasizes the person and problem in isolation from any outside social forces."iii

Another ideological correspondence between AA and the Oxford Groups can be found in their attitude toward recruitment of those who have (had) doubts about their programs. The Oxford Groups encouraged doubters, including agnostics, to pray and to practice "quiet times" acting "as if" they believed in God. The assumption was that God would make himself known to the supplicator, God having a "plan" for every human life and being ready to reveal it to anyone who would "listen." In AA, the approach to doubters and the assumptions underlying that approach are identical to those of the Oxford Groups. AA even has a prescriptive slogan for newcomers harboring doubts: "Fake it until you make it." In the "Big Book," Bill Wilson devotes an entire chapter, "We Agnostics," to this idea. In it, he comments: "We [atheists and agnostics] found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice [that is, rational thought] and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results . . ."iv

The concept of God implied in this belief is less than subtle. The AA/ Oxford Group Movement concept of a deity has little to do with Einstein's impersonal God who doesn't play dice with the universe, while it has much to do with—and is in fact indistinguishable from—the Old Testament concept of a God who is jealously concerned with the most picayune aspects of his followers' lives.

A related similarity is that even though the roots of both AA and the Oxford Groups are in evangelical Protestantism, AA is, and the Oxford Group Movement was, nonsectarian. Frank Buchman and his followers always insisted that they were not a religious organization and were in fact a "movement" which intended to revitalize existing religious organizations. AA, like the Oxford Groups, has no ties to any particular religious bodies; but it goes one step further than the Oxford Groups and argues, not very convincingly, that its program is "spiritual" rather than religious.

An additional ideological similarity between the Oxford Groups and AA is a distinct hostility to formal organization. In the Oxford Groups this stemmed from a belief in ever-present divine guidance which would render formal organization unnecessary. (The primary purposes of organization are coordination and communication, and who or what could better fulfill those functions than an all-powerful God making his will known to all those willing to "listen"?) AA inherited this hostility to formal organization and, ironically, spelled it out in one of the 12 traditions, AA's organizational principles. The ninth tradition states, in part, that "A.A., as such, ought never be organized." The results of this hostility to organization were, however, vastly different in AA and the Oxford Groups. AA, thanks largely to Bill Wilson, developed an organizational structure which is completely noncoercive and very democratic, and is in fact quite similar to organizational models developed by anarchist theorists. The Oxford Group Movement, on the other hand, was always a prime example of what has been called "the tyranny of structurelessness"; it was always under the informal but dictatorial control of its founder, Frank Buchman, and remained so until his death—thanks in part, in all probability, to the fact that there was no organizational structure through which disaffected mem-bers could challenge him.

A further point of similarity between the Oxford Group Movement and AA, and one which reflects favorably on both, is their emphasis on human equality. Unfortunately, this emphasis is based in the shared belief that human beings are equally powerless without God's guidance; but the fact remains that there was no institutionalized racism or sexism (with the marked exception of virulent homophobia) in the Oxford Group Movement, and there is none in AA. While it's certainly true that the Oxford Groups had no real understanding of racism and did nothing effective to combat it (and were blissfully unaware of sexism), and that Frank Buchman hobnobbed with rich and powerful anti-semites, it's also true that the Oxford Groups did in theory oppose racism; and while AA was hardly a leader in the fight for desegregation, it's also true that AA has always made real efforts to make its program available to all alcoholics regardless of their race, sex, or sexual orientation. This is not to say that many AA members are not racist, sexist, and homophobic—many are—but AA has always officially frowned on such prejudice. And, indeed, as AA's membership, though somewhat whiter than average, is fairly representative of the U.S. population as a whole, it would be surprising if AA's members didn't hold many of the prejudices common in American society.v

A final, and very important, point of ideological correspondence between AA and the Oxford Groups is their anti-intellectualism. Given the religious basis of both organizations, this isn't surprising. Both AA and the Oxford Groups were based upon belief in a God who would make "His" plans known to anyone who would "listen." This belief leads directly to antiintellectualism in that, first of all, there is no evidence that God exists, and thus a questioning intellectual approach is a direct threat to belief in God. In the second place, even if you grant that God does exist, how can you be sure that any "guidance" you receive is from God rather than from your own imagination? A related question is how do you reconcile conflicting "guidance" received by different persons unless some "guidance" doesn't come from God? And if that's the case, how do you tell which "guidance" is genuine? Obviously, there is no satisfactory answer to these questions, so an intellectual approach to these problems becomes a real threat to belief. Thus, Oxford Group members were told, "Doubt stifles and makes abortive our attempt to act upon God's guidance," and AA newcomers are often told, "Your best thinking got you here."

A related stylistic similarity between AA and the Oxford Groups is an emphasis upon emotional experience. This stems from their common evangelical roots. Oxford Group Movement meetings were openly evangelical and often very emotional, and a great many observers have commented upon the revival-like quality of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with their prayers, confessions, collections, rituals, and witnessing.

A rather odd correspondence between AA and the Oxford Groups is the extensive use of slogans, aphorisms, and folk sayings. Some MRA slogans sound downright bizarre to the modern ear: "P-R-A-Y: Powerful Radiograms Always Yours"; "A spiritual radiophone in every home"; "F-A-I-T-H: Forsaking All I Take Him"; "Crows are black the world over"; "When man listens, God speaks"; "Minute Men of God"; "World-changing through life changing"; and "J-E-S-U-S: Just Exactly Suits Us Sinners." In AA, one frequently hears "One Day at a Time"; "Easy Does It"; "Let Go and Let God"; "Keep It Simple" (sometimes "Keep It Simple, Stupid"—KISS); "Utilize, Don't Analyze"; "Fake It Until You Make It"; "One Drink, One Drunk"; and a number of similar homely homilies.

A harmless, and indeed attractive, stylistic feature of both AA and the Oxford Groups is informality. Until late in his life, his followers usually referred to Frank Buchman simply as "Frank," and by all accounts Oxford Group Movement houseparties were extremely informal affairs with attendees coming and going as they pleased, addressing each other by first names, and spending much time on leisure activities. AA is similarly informal. First names are habitually used at AA meetings, service workers at AA offices are almost invariably friendly and helpful, and members often engage in informal socializing, such as going out for coffee, after meetings. Given the terrible problem of loneliness in American society, it would be surprising indeed if many alcoholics didn't find the friendliness and informality of AA to be its most attractive features.

A not-so-attractive stylistic similarity between the two organizations is self-preoccupation. Again, this stems directly from their shared belief in divine guidance. Frank Buchman and his followers believed that their movement was directly controlled by God and was the answer to all human problems. Therefore, all attempts at social improvement outside of the Oxford Groups' sphere were dead ends, as well as distractions from the only essential work, that of the Oxford Groups. AA isn't as grandiose in its claims as the Oxford Groups, but probably a large majority of AA members would vocally affirm that AA is the only route to lasting sobriety, and one often hears comments at meetings to the effect that "AA always works" for those who "honestly" try it. Since AA "always works" (except for those who lack "honesty" or have other "defects of character"), there is no need to develop alternative treatments, and attempts to develop and implement such alternatives are useless at best and could be harmful, in that they might lead alcoholics away from the only effective treatment for alcoholism—AA. The blindness and arrogance such irrational beliefs engender are so obvious as to need no further comment.

One initial similarity between AA and the Oxford Groups disappeared decades ago. The Oxford Group Movement was always aimed primarily at the influential and well to do, just as AA originally was. That AA initially attracted upper class and upper middle class alcohol abusers isn't terribly surprising given the fact that AA's founders were a Wall Street insider and a surgeon, both of whom came from privileged backgrounds, and were, to boot, both members of the Oxford Group Movement before they met.

Within a relatively few years of AA's inception, however, AA's composition had changed dramatically, probably due to its emphasis upon a desire to give up drinking being the sole requirement for membership, and the 12th-step injunction to "carry this message to alcoholics." This is in stark contrast to the Buchmanites' emphasis upon recruiting "up-and-outers" and "key men." At present, AA membership cuts across all class lines, though it does seem to be drawn primarily from the lower middle class.

One important dissimilarity between the two groups regards the matter of anonymity. The Oxford Group Movement went to great lengths to attract the wealthy and prominent and, once they were hooked, assiduously used their names in its self-promotions. In addition, the Oxford Groups routinely went to great lengths to obtain endorsements, or statements that could be misrepresented as endorsements, from presidents, prime ministers, tycoons, and sports and show business figures. The Oxford Group Movement also built a veritable cult of personality around its founder, Frank Buchman, and Buchman left no stone unturned in his efforts to inflate his own reputation.

In contrast, AA has always insisted that members maintain strict anonymity in relations with the media. AA's insistence in this matter was motivated by fear that famous and prominent members would announce their AA membership and then get drunk in public, bringing disgrace upon AA. This policy has served AA well. In addition to protecting AA from public ridicule, it has also allowed AA members involved in the addictions field to issue pronouncements beneficial to AA while hiding their AA membership and posing as disinterested professionals.vi

These are only the most outstanding similarities and differences between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Oxford Group Movement. Anyone thoroughly familiar with AA and the Oxford Groups should be able to discover other points of correspondence and divergence.
   
   
   
   
   
 

 
i1. See, for example, "The Oxford Group Movement," by Henry P. Van Dusen in The Atlantic Monthly, August 1934, p. 249; and Saints Run Mad, by Marjorie Harrison. London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1934, pp. 27-29.
ii2. Quoted in "The Oxford Group—Genuine or a Mockery?," Literary Digest, January 28, 1933, p. 17.
iii3. "The Twelve-Step Program: Cure or Cover?," in The Utne Reader, November/

December 1988, p. 61 .

iv4. Alcoholics Anonymous, by Bill Wilson. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1985, p. 46.
v5. According to the "Alcoholics Anonymous 1996 Membership Survey," AA is 86% white, with both blacks and hispanics being under-represented in its membership.
vi6. For instance, the first edition of this book received an absolutely horrendous review (which contained a glaring and important factual error) in an important library review journal by an addictions "professional" who was almost certainly an AA member, but who did not disclose her membership in the review, and, almost certainly, did not reveal it to the editors of the review journal either.