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:
- A History of Agnostic Groups in AA. The title says it all.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Here is a link to the book’s complete Table of Contents.
Don’t Tell is available as a paperback and Kindle at Amazon.