Don’t Tell


By Chris G.

Who are we, we alcoholic agnostic, atheist, free-thinking people who come to this website?

I sense that many of us are pretty lonely individuals looking for a community, and many are beginning to find it here and in others places. After haunting web-based agnostic AA for about a year now, I think I am pretty typical:  agnostic drunk hits bottom, finds AA, get sober, and after some years of trying the religious program – trying really hard! – finds the attempt at the Jesus Road just not working – indeed, it is becoming a bigger and bigger obstacle to continued growth, in fact.

When the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, hit the streets, one thing it did was to generate a sense of community among alcoholics: That’s how I drank! That’s my story! Somebody understands me! I’m not alone! This sense of community, of belonging and understanding, is a huge part of AA’s success.

Over the past few decades it seems that AA has become more religious. The Lord’s Prayer is everywhere, followed closely by the Prayer of Saint Francis. Back to Basics and similar groups have sprung up, trying to bring back Oxford Group Christian principles. It is difficult in many places to be an honest agnostic in an AA meeting. At the same time, census data shows increasing numbers of people not affiliated with any religion. Agnostic numbers are growing, yet we are marginalized in AA.

Don’t Tell is the first full-length book to address this quandary. And thus no doubt the quote from Bill White and Ernie Kurtz in the Foreword to the book: “Don’t Tell is an important book for anyone interested in the future of Alcoholics Anonymous and the future of alcoholism recovery.”

The first section of Don’t Tell is called In the Rooms. It contains eleven stories of the experience, strength and hope of agnostic AAs, reminiscent of the second section of the Big Book.  It is very likely that whatever your journey in agnostic AA is, you will find something in these stories to relate to, to make you feel less alone, to start a sense of community.

The original 12 Steps are full of God – six out of the twelve mention “Him” in some way. The 12 Steps are the core of recovery, the “suggested” program of recovery in AA. What is an atheist, agnostic free-thinker to do? The second section of the book, titled 12 Steps, addresses this. Seven thoughtful essays give a variety of ideas on what to do with the Steps in an agnostic atmosphere. There has been a lot written about this over the years, and these essays provide a sort of overview of this thinking. The spirit of the section is best summed up by the title of the essay by John M.: “You Cannot NOT Interpret the Steps!”

A lot of books have been written about various aspects of agnostic AA. Some of them are reviewed in Section III, Book Reviews. They are:

  1. A History of Agnostic Groups in AA. The title says it all.
  2. The Little Book. As opposed to the Big Book, The Little Book contains 20 different non-religious versions of the 12 Steps, with insightful commentary.
  3. Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life is a “daily reflections book for non-believers, freethinkers and everyone.” Culled from a wide variety of sources, these daily readings are all germane to the program.
  4. Mindfulness and the 12 Steps. Buddhist thought and the 12 Step program have been associated in several books; the author takes this association and focuses on mindful meditation, and “one alcoholic helping another.”
  5. A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps.  Stephanie Covington explores women in AA as alcoholics, rather than the wives, as portrayed in the Big Book.
  6. The Varieties of Recovery Experience, by William White and Ernest Kurtz, is a short scholarly work by two uncontested experts on alcoholism and addiction. It is a goldmine of information about alcoholism, addiction and recovery, with views from multiple angles, including religious and secular.
  7. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery.  A remarkable work from 1991, the book explores two women’s interpretation of the 12 Steps, and solid advice on “working the program.”

Section IV consists of two article about The Founders of We Agnostics, a California agnostic group formed in 1980 that has led the way for many such groups that have formed since then.

The Lord’s Prayer! What percentage of meetings in North America end with the Lord’s Prayer?  Many, or maybe most. “We are not aligned with any sect, denomination…”  “…Now please join me while we recite a passage from Matthew 6.”  Is there something odd here?  This fifth section of essays examines the use of the LP from the grassroots group level all the way to the considered opinion of the US Supreme Court.

Many Paths to Recovery, Section VI, is just what it says. AA is not the only game in town, and traditional AA is not the only flavour. From web sites to cultural considerations, this section opens the scope of the book with six thoughtful essays.

Section VII, Early History offers essays on the early history of AA of particular interest to today’s agnostics. Agnostics and atheists in AA have been around since it started. Bill Wilson felt it necessary to have a prayer meeting for the first one, but Jimmy Burwell would not go away.

An AA Pamphlet for Agnostics and Atheists. After all this time, and 40 years of debate, why does such a pamphlet still not exist? The mystery is laid bare in Section VIII, along with a discussion of Conference Approved Literature… you do know what that really is, don’t you?

During the few years of the current century a lot has been happening on the agnostic AA front. Groups are forming at a great rate, and in some places, local Intergroups are refusing to recognize them. The current state of the debate is presented in Section IX, Controversy in the New Millennium. Seven essays illustrate the recent state of affairs, the roots of which are provided by everything in the book up to this point. In what is touted as the most inclusive organization in the world, sides are being taken (again). Change is never easy… here is the current uneasiness.

In spite of all the debate, misunderstanding, arguments, and tub-thumping, the sun will rise tomorrow – on the world, and probably on a healthy AA as well. In the last section, Moving Forward, seven optimistic essays show the bright side of the movement. New groups forming, and working! The members are getting sober, staying sober, and working their 12 Step programs – without religion. The way forward is to simply step forward and do it.

All of these stories and essays have been published on the AA Agnostica website. Some of you may have read them all; if you have just recently found the site, maybe you have read only a few.

Organized in a book like this, there is a coherence to the message each of the contributors brings to the site. There is a pattern here, and in the book it is easy to see. It is the pattern of a lot of people with shared beliefs, sharing a common problem, and a common solution, even though each individual’s path is different. Can you relate to the community it describes?

It’s a great book to curl up with, catch up, and come to feel comfortable and know that you are not alone.

“Don’t tell” remains to this day an unofficial policy for agnostics and atheists in AA. However, with this book, and the rigorous honesty of the stories and essays shared within Don’t Tell, the days of that policy may very well be numbered.

Thanks are owed to the thirty-two women and men who contributed to this book. For we agnostics in AA, and for those interested in the future of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is a must-read.

Don't TellHere is a link to the book’s complete Table of Contents.

Don’t Tell  is available as a paperback and Kindle at Amazon.

The book is also available at traditional online retail locations as an iBook (for Mac and iPads) and as a Kindle or, Kobo, etcetera, eBook.

9 Responses

  1. Denis K says:

    Fascinating book Roger, you outdid yourself! Equally excellent review Chris, you aptly captured the essence of this important and historical collection of essays and comments.
    Passed my copy around our group tonight; will need eight copies right away for our members. Plan to attend We Agnostics Group tomorrow night where I’m certain a dozen more copies will be requested.
    Thanks again for this Roger.

  2. life-j says:

    I’ve been waiting for this book for many years . . .

  3. Christopher G says:

    Thanks for all the hard work although I’m sure you’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve purchased mine on Kindle. What a great reading companion! Finally, room to breathe!!

  4. Dan L. says:

    You know the MD/Addictions Specialist (note: not an Allergist!!!) who got me into recovery explained to me a couple of years ago that AA is not spread by brotherhood or fellowship. It is spread by desperation and resentment. It could be the time slot or it could be the “still suffering alcoholic” who has 20 years of “sobriety” (stark, raving madness) and a highlighted and scrawled over copy of the Book (“I wore out, WORE OUT!!! Fifty copies! You still have the same one! That’s how sober I am you atheist punk!!”) So all you need is a room, maybe some coffee and someone who shares your resentment.
    Instantly there are two meeting where there had been one. So it goes. I sure get tired of hearing how “AA is dying because of people like you!” and “In the goode olde dayes we had 192.3% success rate” “I found a foolproof way of doing an inventory 99% success guaranteed!!” You know I was alone until a good friend directed me here and it was all okay.
    Thank You

  5. Thomas B . says:

    Wonderful review, Chris! Wonderful book, Roger! ! !

    Our efforts as WAFTs are essential not only for our recovery, but for those like-minded folks seeking recovery. The availability of this book helps insure that the wide door of inclusivity remains open in the coming years as it has been for most of AA’s long and exemplary history.

    We rightfully should be humbly full of esteem to be doing this endeavor that exemplifies our principles of love and service as Dr. Bob in his last message described as the essence of AA.

  6. Neil F says:

    Thank you Chris for your excellent review of the book.

    As well, many thanks to Roger for his efforts in pulling together and organizing the many articles into a book, to all who contributed articles to the AA Agnostica site and to this book and to Ernie Kurtz and Bill White for their kind words, wisdom and insight.

    I will be ordering some hard copy versions but in the meantime I immediately purchased a Kindle version and started reading. I am afraid that even after many years of sobriety in AA, I remain vulnerable to opportunities that offer instant gratification of my reading addiction.

    Over the next few days I’ll be able to acquaint myself with the insights shared in articles I had missed when they were published on the site. As well, I will be able to enjoy some old friends.

    Thanks again to all who have made this possible and a very special thanks to Roger.

  7. Tommy H says:

    Good job.

    I have it on order and notice a review already on Amazon.

  8. Pat N. says:

    Doggone it! This comes out the day before I leave the country for a couple of months. Now I have to figure out how to get it shipped overseas. On a Sunday, no less. Well, I’m off to my home group to whine about it.

    From the description, this has the makings of a classic. THAnK YOU!

  9. John M. says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your review of Don’t Tell. I thought you did a nice job of introducing the book in your first few paragraphs, and I liked the way you reviewed each section of Don’t Tell individually.

    It was very kind of Ernie Kurtz and Bill White to write the “Foreword” and I thought Roger did a very good job in writing the Introduction and the Conclusion.

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