The “Don’t Tell” Policy in AA


By Roger C.

There often seems to be an unofficial policy in Alcoholics Anonymous especially for nonbelievers at AA meetings: “Don’t Tell.”

It is a policy imposed by just a few but rarely challenged.

If you are an atheist, agnostic, humanist or secularist you had best keep your lack of belief in a deity to yourself. (And yet, according to Bill W., AA is officially for everyone “regardless of their belief or lack of belief”).

Here’s an example of the problem: John M tells about how easily everyone accepts it when an AA speaker says, “I owe this to my Higher Power whom I choose to call God.”

“No problem here!” John writes, and he continues:

However, a long standing sober member of my home group once told me that when she was sharing at a closed meeting she spoke of her higher power “whom I choose not to call God.” The looks she got, the raised eyebrows, the shuffling of fannies in the chairs indicated to her that her declaration was a problem for many in the room. At that moment, it felt to her as if she had uttered a blasphemy.

“Don’t Tell.” That’s the policy for nonbelievers in AA.

There are three main ways to be “outed” as an agnostic in Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. By sharing, as John’s friend did.
  2. By removing the word “God” from the 12 Step program of recovery. In 1939 the words “as we understood Him” were added to “God” in the suggested 12 Steps. Today, for many nonbelievers, that compromise is not enough. The word “God” is removed while the intent of the Step is maintained.
  3. By declining to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of an AA meeting.

Some readers will be familiar with the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy which was for some time the official United States policy on homosexuals serving in the military. The policy prohibited discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members, while barring openly gay or lesbian persons from military service.

The “Don’t Tell” part of the policy meant that if you didn’t let on that you were a gay or a lesbian then you could still be a member in good standing of the armed forces. If you admitted you were a homosexual, however, then you were kicked out.

The “Don’t Ask” part meant that nobody could ask you if you were a gay or a lesbian. Or even a bi-sexual. And the top brass couldn’t investigate to find out; they couldn’t go to your home, ask your friends or follow you to bars or meetings.

There doesn’t appear to be a “Don’t Ask” part in this policy in AA.

A rumour circulated in the Toronto area that there was a new AA group in Richmond Hill which, although it read the traditional 12 Steps of AA, also shared an interpretation of some of the steps without the “God” word.

Four self-appointed AA police officers decided to investigate and showed up at a Widening Our Gateway meeting on Sunday, November 20, 2011, and sure enough, they concluded, there was evidence of tampered Steps.

A month later, on December 20, one of these detectives presented a motion at Intergroup that Widening Our Gateway be suspended from Intergroup membership for changing the Steps.

The motion will be voted on at the next  Intergroup meeting.

Marissa Gaeta and Citalic Snell: The kiss that marked the end of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

Meanwhile back in the United States military, the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy finally came to an end on September 20, 2011. It took a while for the new rules to take effect but on December 21, in an article headlined “Gay Navy Couple Torpedo Don’t Ask Don’t Tell with First Kiss,” the San Diego News reported on an historic moment. Petty Officer Marissa Gaeta and her partner Citalic Snell became the first gay couple in Navy history to share the “first kiss” moment when the navy ship USS Oak Hill returned from Central America.

The News further reported that Gaeta told a gaggle of reporters: “It’s something new, that’s for sure. It’s nice to be able to be myself. It’s been a long time coming.”

Will the “Don’t Tell” policy at AA meetings ever come to an end?

Of course.

AA as a fellowship will meet this new challenge or, as Joe, a founding member of an agnostic AA group put it: “My bold prediction is that if AA doesn’t accommodate change and diversify, our 100th anniversary will be a fellowship of men and women with the same stature and relevance as the Mennonites; charming, harmless and irrelevant.”

Remember, everything is always impossible until, well, it turns out to be both possible and normal. Look at the picture of Marissa and Citalic again.

It’s been a long time coming but nonbelievers will yet have a place in the rooms of AA.

In the meantime, for God’s sake:

“Don’t Tell.”

For a PDF of this article, click here: The “Don’t Tell” Policy in AA.

YouTube Audio

10 Responses

  1. Brenda says:

    Interesting piece, why so harsh on the poor old Mennonites tho? When we run out of oil they might not seem so irrelevant!

  2. Bob K. says:

    Thanks again to Roger for picking up on this so, so apt analogy and for writing on it with such power and lucidity.

    I have now made six visits to the agnostic groups, and AA-wise, there is more the same than different. It is a rare pleasure to be in an environment where one is not required to apologize for one’s “second class” membership status.

    For many years I have taken the risk of speaking out for, and reaching out to the prospects who seem to bristle at the “missionary” approach. In this endeavour, it is always incumbent on me to use the utmost tact and diplomacy, or risk complete “pariah” status. Partial “pariah” status, I can live with.

    A study of AA history is quick to reveal that the “first hundred” lacked the unanimous “I was saved by finding God” story as presented in our book. Robert Thomsen, an AA member who “worked beside Bill during the last twelve years of his life,” wrote the 1975 biography, Bill W. Of AA in New York in the late thirties, he wrote:

    There were agnostics in the Tuesday night group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings, Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and the strength of the group. At some time each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then – whatever it was that occurred between them – was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves.

    There is nothing new in what is being said here, other than it being said louder.

    I am deeply convinced that there is an audience for what we have to say. Again, my thanks for a very fine blog.

    Bob K in Whitby

  3. Don S. says:

    ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ extends to everyone in AA. It follows from ‘As we understood Him’.
    If 1000 AAs all choose their own conception of God, they can’t all be right. Many or most AAs are staying sober by believing falsehoods. This is why it’s bad form to discuss particulars of our beliefs in AA. It draws attention the fact that we can’t all be right.

    It is an open secret in AA that ‘as we understood Him’ is a psychological and emotional trick. If our beliefs don’t have to be true, then many of us have a fictional Higher Power. The fellowship and other principles in AA are keeping us sober.

  4. David S. says:

    This very welcome essay gets right to the heart of what made traditional AA meetings such a disappointment for me, a non-believer. I felt like a fraud (even a hypocrite), and not able to participate fully, and was therefore distracted from the issue of addiction. At my Agnostic meetings, where it’s all about the real issue–alcoholism–there’s freedom to experience and benefit from the fellowship, without that distraction of flying under false colours.

  5. Donna M. says:

    I know what you are saying about the “freeze” that can be put on when the atheist word is uttered. Since we have seven agnostic meetings in New York City, I only regularly attend those but have gotten over my trepidation of saying I am an atheist when asked to speak at other meetings. I now always make sure I say it and in the past few years (I have 12 in all) I don’t get any flak. I don’t get aggressive about it, just state it simply and explain that I am a secular humanist and that I find will power and peer power enough. Invariably, people come up to me after the meeting and say, in effect, “I am with you.”

    I do believe that times are changing. American AA is, I believe, more tolerant than Canadian because the leader here believes in a big tent. We are allowed to have meetings that are advertised as being without prayers. However, as you probably know, we were asked to remove our altered steps from our website. It doesn’t really matter; we distribute our own printed version at meetings.

    I think it is important to be patient but not silent. It is important for people to know that it is possible to stay sober without a higher power. We have a welcome free space in a Brooklyn hospital because the hospital has a drunk tank and wants to offer AA on premises, hosting both a traditional and an agnostic meeting. Some patients steadfastly will not attend a religious AA meeting and the hospital recognizes this. Our meeting has grown in its eight years from two or three people to a regular over-20.

    Patience and good luck!

  6. Steve B. says:

    I go to mainstream AA meetings in Mokena, Illinois, and at almost every meeting I hear reverential praise for “god” and a “higher power.” I frequently say at these meetings that I don’t believe there’s any evidence for either one, and that AA works not because of anything supernatural, but because of people helping people.

    Many AA’s don’t like it when I say this, and I suspect that I am not one of the most popular members in Mokena, but they are not going to stop me from openly expressing my opinions on this subject. I refuse to be bound by groupthink or to yield to social pressure to conform to nonsensical notions.

    And no one at the meetings can condescendingly tell me, as if I were a newcomer in dire need of learning the AA ropes, to “keep coming back” until I finally fall to my knees in prayer, because I have been sober for many years.

    Several results of my difference of opinion over a higher power are that: I have become somewhat detached from AA, I don’t usually like the meetings very much at all, and I found that it really isn’t difficult for me to rely primarily on myself rather than AA for sobriety.

  7. Jowita says:

    I always have to ask myself: How much of this disapproval (“shifting of fannies”?) from other AA members because of my sharing/ whatever about being an agnostic comes from my own perception and because of the fact that I’ve self-programmed to feel defensive / extra sensitive about it?

    I’m just saying.

  8. Perry H says:

    Hello Roger,

    I just came across your website and blogs… and very happily so.

    I was looking on the Net for help and information on starting a Non-Believers AA meeting in the Santa Barbara, CA area and your words (and those of the writers you feature) are a “blessing” for lack of a better term.

    In your blog here on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I can say I have never shied away from identifying as an atheist in AA meetings here in Southern California. If any other AAer was not comfortable with that then I figured they could find another meeting instead of me, right? Why should I be the one to go looking for a more comfortable setting only to work the exact same program? The way Bill W had intended for ALL alcoholics to be able to do?

    It seems to me, with the ultra-conservative movements going on in the last 10 to 12 years, and with right-wing politics getting so pronounced of late, us atheist and agnostic AAers are seeing anew the detrimental effects such narrow thinking has had on everything from our school’s curriculum to the talking points on news shows being taken over by a radical bunch of bible-thumping nitwits!

    So thanks, Roger. I’ll continue to read your words and glean whatever I can regarding the best ways to be a true non-believer within a truly wonderful program of recovery.

    All the best,

    Perry H

  9. Robert says:

    Hi Roger, Thanks for the post, I came across it in my search for how to start an AA meeting. I am an AA member in a rural setting in Malaysia and there is no meeting here.

    Your post is good. I know a few AA who do not connect to the whole HP thing. Myself, I find some direction in Process-Relational Philosophy.

    Kindly, Robert

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