The truth is indeed sobering: A response to Dr. Lance Dodes

— Part Three

The true meaning of ‘Eminence’

By Michael G. Brock,

Lavitt questions Dodes about his reference to “the eminent psychoanalyst” Carl Jung and asks why he disagrees with Jung that a spiritual solution is necessary for an alcoholic or an addict. Dodes responds, “I don’t have any particular respect for Carl Jung, and I believe that your reading of that is not what we intended.” So what does eminent mean? “Eminent meaning well-known.” OK. Hitler was well-known. Was he eminent? Merriam-Webster says eminent means “well-known and respected.” But Dodes has his own meaning for words, as well as his own way of evaluating effective treatment. “I don’t respect him or his work…he’s not well respected today in my field.”
That Dodes is not enthralled with Jung is not surprising. Jung’s notion that it wasn’t enough for a client to have insight into his condition, but that he also needed an alternative ideal for which to strive, was a major factor in his rift with Freud, and remains a divisive factor today between not only Freudians or Neo-Freudians and spiritually oriented therapies, but also between insight and cognitive-behavioral therapists. [i] However, the lack of insight that insight oriented therapist have into the human psyche is quite astounding. The fundamental existential need for meaning, and the lack of meaning that is central to the condition of alcoholism is the reason that a meaning-oriented approach like Bill Wilson’s quasi-religion has been and is so effective.
But it is not that case that this offshoot of Christianity is the only treatment addressing this condition. Victor Frankl addressed the same need concisely and accurately in Mans’ Search for Meaning, a work describing his Holocaust experience and what he took away from it, and The Unheard Cry for Meaning, an explanation of his ideas about Logotherapy (Word Therapy). The essence of his message is that we must find a way to look on the human experience as positive in the worst of conditions. That he could find meaning and purpose amidst the nihilism of the concentration camp is baffling to even a theist like me.
If we cannot do this — see life as more positive than negative — we can’t go on. Of course, one could say, Frankl’s frame of reference was the Holocaust, it would be difficult for anyone to find meaning in those circumstances. But what Frankl was saying was that this principle has wide application to everyone in normal, everyday life, and that people become mentally ill and suicidal when they lose touch with whatever meaning they believe there is. I’ve often been told by my AA clients that addiction is “suicide on the installment plan,” and no one has to ask what that means.
Asked why he makes no distinction between spirituality and religion, Dodes says that AA is religious, and the evidence for that is they say “The Lord’s Prayer” at the end of most meetings. It is true, this is one vestige of religion that survives in most (but not all) AA meetings to this day. But not everyone says this prayer, and no one is required to. Now part of the Christian lexicon, the prayer is generally attributed to Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, but may have been written by John the Baptist, as suggested by the Muslim historian, Reza Aslan, in his book, Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
But there is nothing about a new religion or human divinity in Jesus’ prayer. He said to pray to God in heaven, whose name is holy. What theist would dispute that? He said to pray that “[God’s] kingdom come, [his] will be done on earth as in heaven.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have the kind of harmony on earth that there is in the movement of the planets? He said pray for what you need (presumably not for what you want). OK. “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Resentment, Bill Wilson said, is the number one killer of alcoholics [ii], but who can be truly spiritually or mentally healthy without forgiving and seeking forgiveness? And who does not want to avoid being either the doer or the recipient of evil deeds? How does this differ from the basics of what every spiritual/ethical teacher has taught?
It was also Aslan’s contention that Jesus never intended to start a new religion, but to take Judaism in a different direction. The founding of Christianity, he argues, was the result of Saul of Tarsus (AKA St. Paul) telling pagan converts to the early church when it was still a branch of Judaism that they could eat pork and did not have to be circumcised. For this he got himself into trouble with James, the brother of Jesus and head of the Jewish sect in Jerusalem, who made Paul go to the Temple in Jerusalem for purification. (There he was arrested and jailed by the Romans.)
Paul was the first writer to attribute supernatural powers to Jesus, and it was his brand of the sect that survived after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the Jews in 70 C.E. Even so it wasn’t until 325 C.E. when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and declared it the State religion that the rebel Jesus, who had been hung on the cross as an enemy of the State, was elevated by the same State to the status of a God.
This was not an unprecedented step for Roman Emperors or other heads of state. In the ancient world it was not uncommon for leaders to declare themselves gods, presumably so their authority could not be questioned. The practice continued through the monarchy period of Europe, with the modification that the king served by the decree of God, but was not himself a god. Whatever the reason, the elevation of Jesus to divine status forever sealed the breach with Judaism, creating a religion that was ostensibly monotheistic, but which now claimed three Gods. In his series, “The Story of the Jews,” for PBS, Simon Schama declared, “Three God? Why not five?”
Indeed, there were many lesser gods in the Catholic Church I was exposed to as a child, Jude was the patron saint of this (lost causes?), and Christopher was the patron saint of that (travelers, I think). There was a whole pantheon, which didn’t seem right to Mohamed, and which was one of his stated reasons for founding Islam. He recognized Jesus as a prophet, but wanted to get back to a true monotheism.
The teachings of any religion can be horribly confusing to those with a more rational turn of mind. It therefore makes sense that most scientists reject God because they feel they have more reasonable explanations for how the universe came into existence and how it functions than religion does. I would have to agree with them on that point. I would also concede that the overlay of power politics and greed that seems to find expression in all human endeavors is very much present in religion as well. Some of the best and some of the worst human behavior is motivated by religion.
But Dodes shows a great deal of ignorance of, and disrespect for, both other religions and AA by describing AA as a Christian fundamentalist sect. Either cursory research or a conversation with a Christian fundamentalist or an AA member would quickly clarify the differences. To say that AA is a Christian organization because it started out as an offshoot of a Christian sect is as ludicrous as saying that Christianity is a branch of Judaism because it started out as such. According to that line of reasoning, AA would have to be a branch of Judaism. Is that what Dodes believes?
I guess Dodes could say that religion is OK, it just doesn’t belong in the treatment arena, regardless of whether it has any success. He is not the first to object to religion as therapy, and will not be the last, I’m sure. He throws out the studies that claim a high success rate for those people who are involved in AA, saying that it probably has a success rate around 5-10%. He suggests that this rate of success would equate to the spontaneous remission rate, therefore, he concludes that AA has no success at all. I would be willing to concede that (in my experience) the percentage of people who recover and stay in AA is relatively low, (And what business does AA have studying its own recovery rate anyway?), but is it a given that the people who get sober in AA would experience spontaneous remission? Or are those people in a different category?
I’ve observed in my practice that many people who recover through other means, including just being fed up with the economic and personal costs of substance abuse, have had contact with AA at some point. A seed may have been planted; and I also believe there is a population of alcoholics/addicts who is reached through AA that would not recover without it.
How anyone would track the many long and winding roads that lead to permanent sobriety I do not know. Given the many uncontrolled variables in studying the AA population, the science may be manipulated prove whatever you want it to; that the spiritual solution is wildly successful or is no more successful than no treatment. The findings of scientific studies can be skewed to prove the predisposition of the scientist, and that is what happens. Compounding inaccuracies in the studies themselves, findings may also be selectively quoted out of context, creating an inaccurate and misleading impression of what the results of the studies actually were. [iii]
As for the claim that AA is a Christian fundamentalist sect, let’s look at some of the basic tenants of Christian fundamentalism and see if AA fits. First and foremost, every person who would call himself or be called by others a fundamentalist Christian would have to proclaim Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He would have to have been baptized, believe that Jesus is the only son of God and is God incarnate, that he was crucified as atonement for the sins of the world, that he died and after three days rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, and that he will return at the end of time to judge all the people of the world and send them to heaven or to hell. Abuse of alcohol is considered a sin like any other sin, and can only be removed by the sinner being “born again,” and “washed in the blood of Christ.”
A fundamentalist Christian would have to believe that one can only be saved through Jesus, the sole mediator between man and God. He would also have to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, both the Old and the New Testament; that the “new covenant” of the New Testament supersedes the “old covenant” of the Old Testament; and that the true people of God are those who follow Jesus and proclaim him as the Messiah. [iv] There are those fundamentalist Christians, however (and they are quite numerous), who believe that God is waiting for the conversion of all Jews to Christianity before he puts an end to the world, and this is one of the main reasons for strong fundamentalist support for Israel. The apocalypse is big with the fundamentalists, as it was with Paul in the first century C.E. and the Lutheran writers of the Augsburg Confession in 1530. All thought they were living in the end times. Many expect to see Jesus return before the end of their lives.
Few AA members believe all of these premises, and many believe none of them. If AA is a religion, it is a religion without a dogma or theology; a religion which allows you to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Atheist, and still consider yourself a member of AA. You are an AA member if you say you are an AA member. AA does not consider itself a religion, but a fellowship. It has no ecclesiastical structure, no government, and a policy of corporate poverty. There are no dues or fees and no membership requirement but a desire to stop drinking. [v] In The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA, Wilson said that when formulating the traditions of AA the founders asked the groups then in existence for their membership requirements. They were surprised and perhaps somewhat bemused to discover that if all of the membership requirements of the various groups were in effect, none of the original founding members would have been eligible, including Wilson. [vi]
There is no authority in AA, leaders are voluntary, unpaid servants. The sole purpose of the organization is to provide a forum for alcoholics to help each other recover from alcoholism. The only authority is “a loving God as he may express himself in the group conscience… leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern.” [vii] What AA shares with Jesus is the notion of an individual relationship to God, but AA sidesteps the politics inherent in all religions with a power structure. This may be why most non-religious people do not find it threatening.
Can you think of another religion with this lack of theology or political structure? And, regarding Dodes request for a definition of spirituality as distinguished from religion, it is surprisingly simple. Spirituality, as defined and practiced in AA, is what has always been known in religious circles as mysticism. Mysticism is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “The experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics; the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight).”
AA tells people that by diligent practice of the 12-Steps they will have a “spiritual awakening.” Along with this “God consciousness” will come the ability to stay sober and rebuild their lives on solid footing. The only instruction regarding how to pray is given in step 11, which says, “[We] sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we [individually] understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”
It is this step more than any other which embodies the essence of AA. One thing that is difficult for any skeptic to believe in is a God who would alter the universe in response to human supplication. It was belief in that kind of God that had driven many away from their childhood faith. The concept of God expressed by this step is one who neither plays favorites, not accepts instructions/requests from humans to alter external reality for their benefit. The concept is a God who is 100% in charge of the universe. AA says it is the job of those who pray to fit themselves to what God expects them to be, finding the strength to do that in their faith.
But this God is also not a God who could be given to you or taken away from you by any human entity. He needs no mediator, nor is one possible. There is only the example of those who have gone before, demonstrating that this immediate personal relationship is not only possible, but constitutes the most powerful form of religious expression. It was a concept that transcended all time periods and all religions, and, like all forms of mysticism, it has more in common with mystics of all faiths (or no particular religion) than with the religion from which it sprang.
Gandhi wrote, “It is my conviction that all the great faiths of the world are true, are God-ordained and that they serve the purpose of God and of those who have been brought up in those surroundings and those faiths. I do not believe that the time will ever come when we shall be able to say there is only one religion in the world. In a sense, even today there is one fundamental religion in the world. But there is no such thing as a straight line in nature. Religion is one tree with many branches. As branches you may say religions are many but as a tree, religion is only one.” [viii]
And so Martin Luther King, the Christian, based his non-violent civil rights movement on the example of the Hindu, Gandhi, who cited as his inspiration for the movement that led to the independence of India the words of Jesus, the Jew, who said, “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. ‘But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also…’” [ix]
Dodes says that Wilson was a “marketing genius,” with which I would agree. But his real genius was not in transforming fundamentalist Christianity to something that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described even as “liberal” Christianity in order to make it salable to the medical establishment. (The “Higher Power” change was a group decision made as a result of loud complaining by non-believers and persons with unconventional beliefs.) Wilson’s real genius was in repackaging the raw material of his spiritual experience as a monotheistic mysticism and then selling (mostly protestant) Christian churches on the idea that it would be a good idea for them to host AA meetings as a service to their communities. This is where most AA meetings are held, and were it not for their support, it is unlikely AA would ever have become a pervasive as it is today.
It is worth noting that Abraham Low, following AA’s example, also attempted to establish a foothold in protestant churches, but was not as successful, in part because of the lack of spiritual content of his movement. His biography, My Dear Ones, (Neil and Margaret Rau) documents this problem. Many pastors would have been willing to facilitate the presence of his self-help groups on their premises (and some did), but one of the things they asked for was some religious reference, such as saying “The Lord’s Prayer.”
This he refused to do, not because of any deeply held religious convictions of his own (He married a Christian, raised his kids protestant, and believed in a “Higher Power,” but had no religious affiliation.), but because he believed psychology and religion ought to be separate. I agree with him that his system of self-help had no spiritual basis, and that to try to infuse it with such would have been a mistake. However, the lack of a spiritual reference did prevent his movement for gaining wider acceptance, and today the movement has all but died out. Interestingly, some clients of mine who had success with the Recovery method have told me that a combination of Recovery Inc., and their religion was what worked best for them.
It might also be noted here that traditional religion has been a source of emotional healing, belonging, social cohesion, a sense of well-being, and motivation for achievement to many people of various faiths. It has been pointed out, for example, that although Jews make up only 0.2 percent of the world’s population, they win an astonishing 22 percent of Nobel Prizes. [x] The article attributes this to many factors in Jewish culture, including a centuries-old emphasis on literacy. The psychological benefits of fellowship with people who share similar beliefs, culture, ethnicity and politics are significant. But this is a two-edged sword, and ethnocentrism can also be a basis for intolerance, prejudice and atrocities committed against entire populations. It may be the case that the religion or the spiritual practice is as good or bad as the people who proclaim and practice it, but it is also true that the practice never measures up to the ideal.
[i] For similarities between AA and Cognitive-Behavioral therapy read, Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work Because it’s a Form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Published on July 20, 2010 by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. in Think Well, reprinted in Psychology Today and found at:
[ii] Alcoholics Anonymous, P. 64
[iii] In his article entitled, The Sober (Distorted) Truth: A Rebuttal, Dr. M.A. (Mel) Vincent, BA. Sc., M.Sc., M.D., FRCP(C), ASAM Certified Director of Psychiatric Services Edgewood Addictions Treatment Center, makes the following statements: “I would like to state from the outset, that I have no concerns when it comes to questioning the efficacy of 12-step-based treatments in the treatment of addiction. However, I have great concern when the information presented is clearly biased and inaccurate. In a discussion of the data presented in Chapter 3, “Does AA Work?” of The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, authors Lance Dodes, MD and son Zachary refer to several key studies to support their opinion that Alcoholics Anonymous is ineffective. If one takes the time to go back to the original source, it is clear that they have distorted the overall findings of the studies by selecting “tidbits” in isolation and out of context, to support a biased perspective.” To illustrate his point he reviewed the six abstracts related to these studies in their entirety. The full article can be found at:
[iv] I was told as a child in Catholic Catechism that the Jews turned their back on God when they turned their back on Jesus.
[v] Tradition three states, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” This has been changed from the original wording, an honest desire to stop drinking, presumably because, with no authority figures, who is qualified to be the judge of what constitutes an honest desire to stop drinking? Clearly, no one has that right.
[vi] 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA, P.140
[vii] Tradition Two, 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA, P. 132
[viii] All Men Are Brothers, Autobiographical Reflections, Mohandas K. Gandhi, P. 58
[ix] Matthew 5:38-40 (NIV)
[x] The Jewish Journal
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,


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