THE EXPERT WITNESS - The truth is indeed sobering, part VIII: Spreading the word


By Michael G. Brock
Lavitt questions what Dodes calls “the element of proselytization in [his] analysis of the 12th step…Doesn’t proselytizing outside the rooms actually violate the 11th tradition that states, Our [AA] public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion?”  Dodes responds that the tradition is broken all the time.  One way they do it is by proselytizing, “…in response to this book:  AA worked for me, AA is wonderful, why do you criticize AA?  And those kinds of comments.  My brother went to AA and got sober and then they act on it and send people to AA.  That’s proselytizing, isn’t it?”

Merriam-Webster defines proselytize as: to try to persuade people to join a religion, cause, or group; to induce someone to convert to one’s faith; to recruit someone to join one’s party, institution, or cause.  In the strict sense of the word, AA was most involved in proselytizing when it was new and recruiting from the ranks of patients at Akron General Hospital.  That was also when it was most clearly a religious movement.

Some of the AA historical writings[i] describe how the founders used to take newcomers through the steps in the first weeks, even having them get on their knees when they took the third step and asked God to take over their life.  But after the Jack Anderson article, AA was in demand and new “converts” were coming in faster than AA could handle them and new groups could be set up.  As they began to establish guidelines for the groups, a concern grew that AA should not become a cult of personality, which can happen to a movement with a spiritual focus, and since that time the policy has been one of reaching out to people who have reached out to them, or as they say, “a policy of attraction rather than promotion.”[ii]

But while AA is a quasi-religious movement, it is also a quasi-therapeutic movement, and the focus has not been on a belief system, but on recovery from addiction.  You are not welcome to join unless you have a desire to stop drinking.  You can be an atheist and call yourself an AA member, but you’re not likely to be taken seriously unless you’re sober.  And you are more than welcome to practice any religion you want and are officially encouraged to do so by the AA literature.

How many religious movements offer this degree of flexibility?  It is quite unusual.  There are individual mystics from various faiths who offered this encouragement, but no movements per se.  Moreover, the kinds of activities Dodes talks about as examples are more in line with what is generally referred to as word of mouth advertising, not proselytizing.  AAs don’t go door to door seeking converts, pass out literature on the street corners, tell people they have the only answer, or making any promises about an afterlife.
According to the definition, what Dodes is doing is also proselytizing.  You can’t really put forward any kind of recommendation without doing so, and Dodes recommends insight oriented therapy with no science to support it, so he is asking us to accept his ideas, based only on his own anecdotal reports of its effectiveness, completely on faith.  He does this while admitting only an elite few can follow his recommendations because of the cost, and despite the fact that what science exists shows that insight oriented therapy has not been effective for treating addiction, and while most people have dozens of acquaintances who say that they have recovered from substance dependence through AA for everyone who claims an effective treatment through Dodes’ proposed solution.

So Dodes is saying, “Accept my claims on faith, that I have an effective treatment for substance abuse, which, by the way you probably can’t afford.”  He doesn’t really have a problem with proselytizing his faith in secular treatment, only a “religious solution.” This is a very old bias in which scientists claim to have evidence they really don’t have because they package anything with God in it together with stories of serpents that talk, and a world created in six days.  Indeed, much of religious dogma is scientifically impossible or implausible, such as walking on water and raising the dead.  Religion may also carry a doctrine of racial or ethnic superiority, and has been the foundation for many atrocities over all the ages by virtually every major world denomination.

But does that mean that there is no unifying principle in the universe, or that we cannot know something of it and live in tune with it?  I believe there is, and that all science is an attempt to do just that.  Religion at its best is an attempt to do the same thing, coming from a different perspective.  There is ultimately no definitive proof for or against the existence of God, but to me you are a theist if you believe that life has inherent meaning and purpose; or that lacking these qualities inherently, one can infuse it with such.  It is hard to make much of a life without that belief.

Addicts, as a group, lack this belief (despite their protestations, and as evidenced by their behavior), and the capacity to see life without their substance or other addictive behavior as being worthwhile.  That is a strange concept to those for whom meaning and purpose are second nature, but not to most addicts, though many would not see themselves as nihilists during their active addiction.  Most wouldn’t recognize this absence of belief in life until after they had acquired belief in their recovery.  And remember that there are religious leaders among their number.

It’s not just the unsuccessful who can have this crisis of meaning.  John Lennon once wrote, “I feel so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones.”  The number of successful creative types who take their own lives is legion, though most of them are substance abusers or have fallen on hard financial times.  Still, some, like Hemmingway had what they needed materially, but because he found himself unable to write he had lost his sense of meaning and life had lost its worth.  The irony is that his alter-ego main character (Robert Jordan) in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” criticizes his father’s suicide as weakness.
Regarding the purity of science and its motives, Dodes says that, “When a doctor prescribes a pill, he has no stake in that pill or that’s the way it should work.  A doctor shouldn’t prescribe something because the company sent him a gift or he has some financial stake in that company.  It should be prescribed because you believe based on all your experience, knowledge and training that it’s the best thing to do for that person.  But AA doesn’t work that way.  It may be based on experience, but there’s no knowledge and there’s no training.  People say it works for me and it can work for everybody so you should go...”

If Dodes wants to argue that AA is not professional treatment, no one would dispute that.  But to say that doctors aren’t influenced by pressure from drug companies to prescribe their drugs is ludicrous.  There is a reason why so many people die of overdoses from legal drugs—more than those who die from heroin and cocaine according to the CDC.  And if the doctors don’t respond to their pressure, the drug companies appeal directly to the public to market “Abilify,” or whatever other drug they’ve spent a lot of research and development money on.  But AA is based on experience, which is still an important source of knowledge that no one can live without.  T.S. Elliot wrote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”[iii]

And when one AA member refers another to AA there is no financial benefit to that referral, nor is there likely to be any reward for the doctor who refers a patient to AA or an AA oriented treatment center.  The only possible motive in these cases is the well-being of the patient.  And keep in mind that AA has always been and is still the court of last resort.  In my experience, unless they are referred by the courts, nobody goes to AA until they have tried everything else.

Ultimately, the only thing that matters is to find something that works.  The doctor who referred my client to AA did not buy into the “religion,” but he did believe it was effective.  A lot of physicians, employers, wives, and judges find themselves in this position.  They want an affordable solution that has some chance of succeeding.  Moreover, in debunking the scientific studies supporting AA, Dodes may have proved the science is bad, and maybe that scientific quantification is impossible given all the variables, but he has not proved that AA doesn’t work.  Science that says AA doesn’t work is just as suspect as science that says it works for everyone; both are subject to error based on preconceived expectations.  And why trash something unless you can propose something better?  In the end, all this “scientist” can offer to support his recommendations is his own personal bias.
[i]  See AA Comes of Age, or Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers
[ii]  The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA, P. 180
 [iii]  T.S. Elliot, The Rock, 1934
Michael G. Brock, MA, LLP, LMSW, is a forensic mental health professional in private practice at Counseling and Evaluation Services in Wyandotte, Michigan. He has worked in the mental health field since 1974, and has been in full-time private practice since 1985. The majority of his practice in recent years relates to driver license restoration and substance abuse evaluation. He may be contacted at Michael G. Brock, Counseling and Evaluation Services, 2514 Biddle, Wyandotte, 48192; 313-802-0863, fax/phone 734-692-1082; e-mail, michaelgbrock@; website,