A Skeptical View of the 12 Steps

A Skeptical View of the 12 Steps
by Devin Sexson

The 12-Step Program is a very popular and commonly used one in the addiction treatment industry. However, even a small amount of questioning reveals serious logical deficiencies, lack of integrity, and impossible demands that make it incompatible with professionalism. Contrary to the 12-Step folk "wisdom" I will proceed to analyze, and not utilize.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.

Here I have a big problem. A professional has no business telling a client that they are powerless over an inanimate object. The attributes applied to alcohol in "The Big Book" (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939) are, "cunning, baffling, and powerful." The person is reduced to a powerless victim with an unmanageable life and usually thereby rendered dependent on the cult. Alcohol is anthropomorphized. Instead of instructing the person to stop drinking, the group leads the subject to believe that he or she cannot accomplish this by their own power. The result is a superstitious attachment to the cult. It is not uncommon for members to believe that they will relapse if they do not go to meetings, work the steps, pray, or talk with their sponsor. These people develop a neurotic fear of relapse and unrealistic ideas about how to prevent it from happening. Wouldn't it make more sense to help people believe that they do have the power to overcome their addiction?

Step two is the first part of the 12-step's bait and switch technique.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

There are two very interesting things to note here. The first part, "came to believe" implies that you do not believe that a power can make you sane so you need to take this step in order to achieve that end. The word "sanity" in the second part of this has an interesting historical connection. This comes right out of Buchmanism, as most of AA's principles do. Frank Buchman (1878-1961) believed that the only sane people in the world were those who were under what he called "God-control" and the only way to achieve Buchman's idea of god-control was to be a member of his cult. It follows that the only sane people were those who practiced Buchmanism.

Though Frank Buchman is a relatively obscure figure in contemporary society, the spirit of Buchmanism lives on through the practice of 12-step programs. There are people who firmly believe that everyone in the world can benefit by practicing the 12 steps. In the professional world it is important to be more grounded than that. A professional has no business labeling their client insane.

In step two, the subject is baited with an ecumenical sounding "power greater than yourself" and told it can be anything, even the doorknob. In the subsequent steps, you will see this higher power become more narrowly defined until it becomes a Christian God, and then an absurd cultic belief that they tell you you cannot stay sober without.

Step three is gibberish. After all the research that I have done and the descriptions that I have heard of step three I have yet to get a satisfactory answer as to how one actually does the third step.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

It's not clear whether we actually do something or just make a decision to do something. One can note the italicized qualifier at the end of the step, a pathetic attempt at making the steps appear to be more ecumenical than they are. The only thing that is really accomplished here is reminding the reader that God must have a penis.

There is a B. Kliban cartoon that I have come across which is the only thing that I feel accurately represents performing the specific action that step three describes. Here it is:

pic bkpig.gif here
People working step three.

Steps four and five are really one step - confession. After AA split off from the Oxford Group in 1937, Bill Wilson was free to expand his membership to include Catholics, who had been forbidden by the church from joining the Oxford Group. This meant that the confession, something integral to the Oxford Group, must be eliminated, as Catholics are not allowed to participate in a confession outside their own church. But the need for this element remained for Wilson - confession is a powerful tool of manipulation and indoctrination and in this case indispensable, so in the spirit of dishonesty and deception Wilson just called it something else.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Regardless of what it's called, this is still a confession. It is also used in the cult as reinforcement for superstitious thinking. Those who relapse after going through the confession process are often told that they left something out. Before the process they are frequently warned that if they do not do a thorough enough moral inventory they will surely drink again. These kinds of myths are common among the members of these groups and they are encouraged in the meetings. The survival of the cult depends on the fanaticism of its members.

There is no doubt that people find it helpful to talk about things that are bothering them. A secularized form of confession might be called "getting it off your chest." People do this all the time because it does have benefit. However in the context of steps one and two, confession acts as a reinforcement of the labels powerless and insane.

The sixth and seventh steps are more nonsensical filler. Notice how it takes one step to get ready to do something and another to actually do this thing. It seems that the total number of steps being twelve was more important than a coherent list of instructions.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

This is not a joke; that really is exactly how steps six and seven read. After becoming ready to have defects of character removed one humbly asks the Almighty Entity to do so, and I suppose the Grand Cosmic Whatnot just does so. Could the Master of the Universe refuse such a request? As far as I know the issue has never come up in Stepperland. I really don't see how anyone could possibly take this program seriously.

This leads us to steps eight and nine.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

At this point it seems that the subject, now powered by the Omnipotent Thing-a-ma-jig, can go about correcting all his or her past mistakes. Can you really expect do that? According to The Big Book on this matter, "In nine cases out of ten the unexpected happens" It really does say that (AA 3rd edition p. 78). In terms of the individual's relationship to the cult these steps serve the purpose of immersing the person in more guilt, thus making them more dependent and needy.

Even after the Eternal Organism has removed the subjects' defects of character and enabled them to erase their past blunders, such people must still promptly admit to being wrong in step ten. Apparently the removal of our shortcomings (step seven) was only temporary.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Admitting one's mistakes is doubtless an admirable quality, but notice how focused this is on wrongs and defects. What about standing up for ourselves when we are right?

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

The idea that this is a program to help people stop drinking gets lost somewhere between step one and two. By the time step eleven comes around it has no resemblance to a quit drinking program: it is a program to seek and do the will of the cult. This is just pure Buchmanism, the belief that one must actually hear the voice of the Boundless Being and literally do what that voice tells them to do. Of course this really means doing the will of the higher-ups in the cult. So does this enable the individual to stay sober? No, long term members who claim to have worked the steps (whatever that's supposed to mean) relapse every day. Is it the will of God that these people go out and get drunk or did they forget to confess something in their fifth step? According to believers in the 12-step program the individual is always to blame for their relapse, no exceptions. The program itself is seen as divine and above criticism.

At the last step we overcome our addictive behavior, no longer have a dependence on alcohol, go forth and live our lives leaving the addiction as just a memory. Not really. The result of completing these steps is a "spiritual awakening."

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

But did we quit drinking? I don't know, it doesn't say that's what happened. In fact it does not state anywhere in The Big Book that one will overcome excessive drinking by working these steps. It warns "To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live life on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face." And another example, "If we skip this vital step, we may not overcome drinking." And "for us to drink is to die." But there are no guarantees that to follow this program will result in permanent or even long-term sobriety. Death threats if you don't do it, but no guarantees if you do.

It is clear how the 12-step program not only fails to help the individual overcome drinking it actually encourages them to drink. The subject is given a list of impossible, illogical steps that can't be accomplished and told that they will drink if they don't do them. The subject is placed in an environment where drinking is discussed constantly and obsessively while being bombarded with disempowering dogma. The identity and status of the person inside the AA subculture revolves around the amount of time since their last drink increasing stress and anxiety around the subject. It's no surprise that the success rate for this method is absolutely dismal. The 12-step program is unconstitutional, unethical, unprofessional, immoral, and destructive.

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