There are different types of AA meetings, and some are closed and some are open. The closed meetings are for people who think they have a problem with alcohol, while the open meetings are just that, they are open to the general public. Anyone who just wants to learn more about AA, or see what a meeting is like, can go to an open meeting. If you would like to learn more about AA, locate an open meeting in your area and sit in on it and just listen to the speakers. You do not have to participate in any way, and you might even be completely ignored by the other people in the room. You can usually pick up some AA literature at those meetings.
About 20 years ago I tried to help a neighbor/friend deal with his alcohol problems by encouraging him to go to AA. This fellow had battled alcohol abuse for a very, very long time and had been in several 28 day inpatient detox treatment programs. He'd manage to stay sober for a while after finishing these programs, but then some sort of stress would make him reach for a drink, and, as he used to say, "Then I was off to the races". He would start out drinking to help him fall asleep at night, but would drink until he passed out. He might not drink during the daytime for weeks on end, but eventually he would start drinking in the morning to relieve the shakes. Once that started, he would pretty much be drinking around the clock, consuming large quantities of alcohol, and he would be intoxicated all of the time. Two weeks of that sort of thing would generally land him back in a detox/rehab program.
When I became friendly with him, his doctor had just told him that his liver was shot from drinking and that he probably could not survive many more of these benders. He must have been in his early 60's at the time, he was a retired widower, and he really didn't want to die. He wanted to stop drinking, but he really didn't think he'd be able to do it. He'd been drinking since his teens. Practically all his friends were also his drinking buddies. He had tried going to some AA meetings but he was turned off by what he felt was the religious nature of the program. He didn't believe in a higher power, and didn't buy alcoholism as being a spiritual problem. He also didn't believe that people going to the AA meetings were even maintaining their sobriety, he thought they were all a bunch of hypocrites who were continuing to drink. But he knew that if he picked up a drink again he was sunk, and that he needed help to keep him from taking that drink. I offered to help him, but only if he would go back to AA. I didn't know much about AA at the time, but I knew it helped some people, and I wasn't sure what else to suggest. I took a ride over to a short term alcohol treatment hospital in my area, picked up some AA literature and a meeting list, and I began lining up meetings for him.
After reading about the need for newcomers to attend 90 meetings in 90 days, to immerse themselves in the program, that idea made a lot of sense to me. My friend protested loudly, very loudly, when I suggested it to him. I insisted he at least try it and told him I'd drive him to the meetings and wait outside in the car for him. If the meetings were open meetings, I'd attend with him. He had devoted at least 40 years to drinking, so 90 days to try to stay sober didn't seem unreasonable. I already had gotten the AA message, I told him to try it one day at a time.
So, for the next several weeks, I drove him to various meetings, one a day, and I sat in on those meetings that were open to the public. I found I was also turned off by the religious nature of the AA philosophy, but I thought it was possible for my friend to ignore all of that, and mainly use the program as a source of social support to help him remain sober. We kept looking for different meetings at different places and different times of day until we found groups he really felt comfortable in. He found two mens groups he really liked, and he soon began making friends who picked him up and drove him to meetings, relieving me of that task most of the time. When he attended groups with women, a few would start coming on to him when they found out he was a widower, and he accumulated quite a few phone numbers but he wisely avoided calling any of them during those first 90 days. And he did manage to make those 90 meetings in 90 days, even though that wasn't always easy for him. If I hadn't pushed him initially to make those 90 meetings, I don't think he would have stuck with AA at all. He needed to prove to himself he could do it, and stick with it for 90 days. At the end of the 90 days he no longer felt it was impossible for him to remain sober, and he now had some new friends who weren't also his drinking buddies. After meetings they'd go out to a diner and they'd get together to watch ballgames on TV on the weekends.
The one message my friend did absorb from those meetings was that he was powerless over alcohol. Although he never surrendered to a higher power, in a spiritual sense, he did admit that he could never control alcohol, and that, if he picked up a drink, it would always control him. He began regarding it as poison, and he claimed the idea of even picking up a drink made him feel slightly ill. He continued to attend at least two or three meetings a week after those first 90 days, but he never had a formal sponsor. He began working on the 12 steps, but found that wasn't really helpful for him. So, in many ways he wasn't working the program as it is intended, but he also didn't feel as though anyone was trying to shove something down his throat. Rather than reject all of AA, he ignored those aspects that bothered him and used those things that were helpful. I don't know whether anyone gave him a hard time about that, but he didn't let it get to him if they did. It was the group support that helped him the most, just being around people who were committed to being sober, and who were there for him if he needed them, and for him that worked. And he thoroughly enjoyed his own sobriety and being able to help others maintain their sobriety. He never did relapse. He attended at least one AA meeting a week for the next four years until his sudden death from a massive heart attack.
I have no idea how typical my friend's experience was. AA meetings and contacts did obiously help him a great deal, but not the formal aspects or the philosophical teachings of the program. He did tune out the cult like dogma. Had he not done that, he probably would not have stuck with AA at all. And those first 90 days were important--pushing himself to those 90 meetings did help him form a bond with AA, and helped him prove to himself he was serious about getting sober.
But so many people, like my friend, may try AA a few times and then not continue, for various reasons. Then, at a later time, they try it again and they are able to connect with something that helps them to stay sober. That sort of pattern makes it very difficult to objectively study the effectiveness of programs like this. What works for one person might not work for another. And it is difficult to parcel out those aspects of AA that are the most beneficial. For some people, AA might become the central focus of their lives, but, for others, like my friend, it might be simply a much needed secondary social support system, and for still others, it might not be beneficial at all. Clearly though, based on my friend's experience, one does not have to swallow the whole program hook, line, and sinker for it to work.