Before we can ascertain if Alcoholics Anonymous is an effective program, we must determine how to define success. In the sense that Alcoholics Anonymous has remained active, with practicing members continuously since the 1930s, it is a success. Most cults or new religious movements do not survive the death of their founder and charter members. AA has been around nearly 80 years.
Good, hard statistics on AA member retention, long term sobriety, and relapses are hard to pin down. Because of the anonymous nature of the program, researchers often must rely on self-selected respondents, who are more likely to be AA true believers and want to make the program look good. Peole who attend one or two meetings before deciding trading booze for a cult sounds unwise are generally not counted or included in such measurements.
Surveys have been done, both by official AA historians (employed by AA HQ) and outside addiction treatment researchers. Collectively these surveys indicate that between 2-8% of all who walk into a meeting room have sobriety a year later. AA faithful will counter that “paper signers”, people ordered by law enforcement or the courts to attend meetings, should not be held against them – that the program only works for people who want it. To which I would respond, then stop telling probation officers you can help them!
The preamble to Chapter 5 of the Big Book ” How It Works” is read aloud at every AA meeting. It is cult doctrine which absolves the group of responsibility for negative outcomes by ascribing awful character traits to any who leave. Bill Wilson described such cult defectors in the passage as those “constitutionally incapable” of honesty. Honesty is redefined to mean obedience to AA dogma.
AA twists the facts so it can claim credit for any success, but dodge culpability for failure. Anyone who gets sober in AA is used as proof the program “works if you work it”, but anyone who fails just didn’t want it bad enough, “hasn’t hit rock bottom” yet, is incapable of honesty, and wasn’t “willing to do whatever it takes.” I bet drug companies wish they could get in on this level of legally permissible public deception but there are laws in place. By dancing across the lines between religion, support group, and medicine, AA takes what it likes and leaves the rest.