I ran into someone a while back who found out I was going to AA meetings and proceeded to lecture me about how it was just a cult. I don’t see that at all. How would you respond?”

It’s a common misconception. AA’s a culture, not a cult.

The term cult is meant to disparage a sect or group — usually but not always religious in nature — as unhealthy and exploitative of its members. Cults normally feature unquestioned leadership and a formal dogma that must be obeyed.

That sure isn’t AA. Read the Traditions. You get the feeling AA was designed to prevent culthood. It’s inherently disorganized, and in many respects leaderless. One longtime member explained it to me: “How AA works? That’s our secret: it doesn’t work.”

A culture, on the other hand, is simply the set of shared values, attitudes, goals, and practices that characterize a group. It’s often used to describe subpopulations with common features — the youth culture, the corporate culture… the drug culture.

The Twelve Step fellowships represent a culture of recovery. Not the only one, but perhaps the most significant.

Why is a culture of recovery necessary? Because as addiction progresses, the addict or alcoholic grows away from the larger culture from whence they came. It’s an effect of a progressive disease. Addiction — substance use — becomes what psychologists call a ‘central organizing principle’ for the addict’s life. The change is more obvious with users of illegal drugs, but heavy drinkers adapt, as well.

‘Using’ subcultures develop their own terminology and accepted practices; perhaps even ceremonies and a dress code. That’s why you can drop a 16 year old drug user in a new school in a different state, and by noon he’ll have a pretty good idea where to score some drugs.

If at some point, motivated by misery, the addict commits to recovery, all that must change. It’s just too hard to get ‘clean and sober’ hanging around active addicts. So the person in recovery seeks out the society of others in similar circumstances. Their society replaces what’s no longer available, and another culture is born.

This recovery culture can seem pretty strange to those not familiar with it. It’s the strangeness that leads to the comparison. Cults seem strange, too.

But the comparison doesn’t hold. For all their imperfections, the 12 Step groups are anything but cult-like. That’s their strength.