Freethinking Rather Than Platitudes and Reliance Upon Dogma

By Steve K.

I heard this unthinking platitude at an AA meeting recently: “you can’t think your way into right acting – you must act your way into right thinking.” A bias toward the behavioural relationship to thoughts and feelings, and a dismissal of the cognitive influence in this respect.

Err…someone needs to inform scientists, philosophers, psychologists (particularly Cognitive Theorists), psychotherapists, educationalists and rationalists that they’ve got it wrong and that the meeting guru’s know better. I’m pretty sure it works both ways – new thinking can bring about new behaviour and vice versa. Human beings have evolved the capacity for cognitive thought, lets not waste it and go along with everything we hear at meetings!

Interconnection of thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

CBT is based on the idea that how we think (cognition), how we feel (emotion) and how we act (behavior) all interact together.  Specifically, our thoughts determine our feelings and our behaviour.

There is plenty of useful information and collective wisdom available in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), gained through experience, trial and error. We have a responsibility to think for ourselves though and to decide what is helpful and reasonable for us. In early recovery we may need to rely heavily upon others for guidance and direction in relation to staying sober; as we lack experience in this area and are very vulnerable to drinking. However, as we grow in sobriety we must increasingly decide, using our best reasoning and judgement, what is right for us and our recovery.

In my opinion, the downside of group support in AA is the unhelpful influence of group dogma and irrationality. This is often impressed upon members through “well meaning advice”, simplistic platitudes, as well as unquestioning rigid adherence to fellowship literature. Group dogma in AA can lead to oppressive attitudes and practices by members. We have all heard of controlling and abusive sponsorship by members being very literal and rigid with their vulnerable sponsees.

I would like to suggest an ideal of being supportive to one another, in which we can be unified as a fellowship, while allowing individuality and free thought by members. This is a liberal, person-centred approach to recovery, and should be on offer in groups operating upon healthy, ethical, and spiritual principles. This ideal is expressed in Tradition One of the ‘Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions’, p.133, which suggests group co-operation and unselfish support for one another, while still valuing the rights of the individual. This is “unity, not uniformity.”

Freethinking Definitions

A free thinker is defined as a person who forms his or her own opinions about important subjects (such as religion and politics) instead of accepting what others say. Freethinkers are heavily committed to the use of scientific inquiry, and logic. The skeptical application of science implies freedom from the intellectually limiting effects of confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, or sectarianism.


What makes a freethinker is not his beliefs but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell from his 1957 essay “The Value of Free Thought.”

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