Don’t Tell – Introduction


By Roger C.

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t first admit that it exists.

That’s just about the first thing we learn in recovery.

Almost forty years ago, in July 1976, a report was presented to an AA trustees’ committee suggesting that agnostics and atheists in the fellowship were often made to feel like “deviants” rather than “full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”

That’s the problem.

Agnostics and atheists often don’t feel comfortable or even welcome in the rooms of AA.

It’s a problem that has been around for a long time.

And nothing – repeat, nothing – has been done about it.

Well, nothing positive anyway.

There are Intergroups across North America that actually bar agnostic groups and won’t include them on the regional meeting lists. As for example in Lafayette and Laytonville, California, Des Moines, Iowa and Portland, Oregon.

And in Canada, groups have been booted out of Intergroups and off of meeting lists in both Vancouver and Toronto.

The first agnostic AA groups ever in Canada – Beyond Belief and We Agnostics – were also the first agnostic groups ever to be booted out of an AA Intergroup, and that was in Toronto on May 30, 2011.

Two weeks later, a website appeared on the Internet, AA Toronto Agnostics.

At first it was meant only to provide the locations, dates and times of the two agnostic meetings. It quickly became much more than that and a year later morphed into AA Agnostica, “a space for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers worldwide.”

And that’s where this book comes from.

It contains a total of 64 stories and essays mostly by agnostics and atheists in AA originally posted on AA Agnostica, most often on Sunday mornings, over the last almost three years. These were written by over thirty men and women from almost as many cities, states, provinces and counties within three countries, the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

It is a diverse and eclectic sampling of writings by women and men for whom sobriety within the fellowship of AA had nothing at all to with an interventionist God.

Nothing at all.

The stories are broken down rather naturally into ten categories. The first, “In the rooms,” deals with what it feels like to be a non-believer at church basement AA meetings. Another category consists of reviews of books that have been found to be helpful for We Agnostics and FreeThinkers (sometimes referred to as “WAFTs”) in AA. There are several articles under the heading of the 12 Steps. And, not to list all the categories, there is a special one for the two founders of the very first AA meeting to be called We Agnostics – Megan D. and Charlie P. – because we are so thankful for their historic efforts to accommodate non-believers in the fellowship: efforts that would no doubt have been deeply appreciated by the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Just a very few of the writers – in the “Many Paths” section of the book – do not identify as members of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is important to share, however, that as AA members we respect and celebrate all of the paths to recovery. Thus this important section of the book.

Alright, back to the beginning.

We started by suggesting that you can’t solve a problem until you acknowledge its existence.

The discomfort that nonbelievers experience in the rooms of AA was first officially raised as a problem in the mid-seventies, some forty years ago.

It was at that time that efforts began to get the General Service Conference to approve a pamphlet specifically welcoming, and respectful of, agnostics and atheists in AA. The stories of those efforts are told in a section of this book. All of these efforts were ignored or rejected, year after year, decade after decade, by the de facto “group conscience” of AA.

Here’s why.

There is an unofficial but coercive “Don’t Tell” policy in the rooms of AA. If you are an atheist, agnostic, humanist or secularist you had best keep your lack of belief in a deity to yourself.

In this sense, AA is a bit like a cat trying to catch its own tail. You can’t solve a problem if talking about it isn’t even allowed. If you insist on pretending it doesn’t exist.

Thus the AA Agnostica website. Thus this book.

It is no longer possible to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. The question now is simply whether or not the fellowship of AA wants a solution.

Don't TellDon’t Tell is available as a paperback 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.

24 Responses

  1. Joe S. says:

    Thanks, Roger.

    A quick correction to the introduction in your book. The Indianapolis, Indiana group “We Agnostics” was booted from its intergroup in November 2010.

    I think we earned the distinction of being the first group kicked out of an Intergroup for being specifically a group designed to serve free thinkers, agnostics, atheists, etc.

    Best always!


  2. daniel says:

    I believe I am on a spiritual path. I think it was Beth in an earlier post said she wanted to be sober, be a better human being and help others, to me that is as spiritual as you can get. It is practicing step 12 on a daily basis. Cheers Daniel

    • Roger says:

      It is the word “spirituality” that is a problem for many people, and I understand that. Ernie Kurtz has just co-authored a book with Katherine Ketchum called “Experiencing Spirituality.” It will be released on May 20, and will be reviewed over the next weeks on AA Agnostica. I am very interested in how Ernie defines spirituality and how he distinguishes it from religion. Stay tuned!

      • Denis K says:

        I was hung up on the word “spirituality” for 20 years. I heard all manner of explanations but none of them worked for me.
        At 20 years sober I read Ernie Kurtz’s “The Spirituality of Imperfection” where he stated:

        Spirituality is a lot like health. We all have health; we may have good health or poor health, but it’s something we can’t avoid having. The same is true of spirituality: every human being is a spiritual being.
        The question is not whether we “have spirituality” but whether the spirituality we have is a negative one that leads to isolation and self destruction or one that is more positive and life giving.

        That simple explanation has stood me well for the past 19 years.
        This weekend I read Twelve Steps To Psychological Good Health And Serenity. Gabe presents the following related to spirituality: “Spirituality opens your mind to the world as it is, brings connectedness to it and allows you to live properly and contentedly as a mere inhabitant of it.”
        I agree with Daniel on his definition as well, “It is practicing step 12 on a daily basis.”
        I agree Roger, the word “spirituality” is a problem for many people; I doubt there will ever be an explanation that suits everyone.

      • Tiff K says:

        I understand that it is somewhat of an issue of semantics. The word has different meanings for different people. My thinking is that since so many people associate the word spiritual with supernatural, perhaps there is a better word choice for this context and purpose.

  3. Tiff K says:

    I have been thinking some more about the title. We are not all on a path to spirituality. We are all on a path of sobriety. Some of us find spirituality along that path while others do not. Some of us do not need or choose spirituality to stay on the path of sobriety and entitling a brochure which addresses this issue “Many Paths to Spirituality” is rather ironic.

    I understand that some important parts of our recovery – live and let live, accepting the limits of our control, etc. – can have spiritual meaning for some. (And most agree that the path of sobriety is more pleasant with these components.) Yet many atheists and agnostics view these as life lessons or philosophies which enrich our lives, not supernatural experiences.

    I assume that the purpose of the brochure is to send a clear message to atheist and agnostic alcoholics that they can get and stay sober within AA without a belief in or allegiance to a god. I believe that the current title obscures and limits that message.

  4. Robert K. says:

    “…a report was presented to an AA trustees’ committee suggesting that agnostics and atheists in the fellowship were often made to feel like “deviants” rather than “full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”

    Sometimes us NAers feel the same way. For me, I deal with the “god issue” by embracing Buddhism. We don’t have a god but we have a wonderful philosophy, teachings and group emphasis. I know alcoholism was always part of my life and that lead to serious drug use as I turned 65.

    In St. Thomas (Virgin Islands), we are starting a second NA group. Presently, the god thing in NA looks just like AA’s god thing.

    I would like it to be de-emphasized. I’m not sure how to approach it. Relying on experience, I will give it a little time, thought, NA & AA resources and “prayer.” I call it prayer because that is what people in our rooms like to hear. For me it is really deep mediation.

    I get through life living on life’s terms. How life is defined is the trick. If anybody has a thought on how to approach this, let me know. My anonymity is not a big deal. I’ll take emails if it helps the recovering addict. And alcohol is a drug.

    Rob K. STT_USVI

  5. Lech L. says:

    I have never made any bones about my agnosticism from the very start, and I have never felt uncomfortable or been slighted for that.

    I have been criticized on a few occasions for ‘step bashing’ because I expressed the view that ‘the program’ was crypto-christian claptrap.

    I, too, have noticed that the simple way meetings began when I first started attending has become an orgy of readings from the sacred texts. I do the crossword puzzle during this time.

    At one time I left the room when the LP was recited at the end of meetings. Now I stay and don’t say it – I think that makes my point better.

    • Robert C says:

      I think it helps also to understand the specifics of this quasi-religiousness which currently pervades AA (and CA, which uses the big book as well). It is not just “generally religious” or christian. It is highly specific. Most meetings which have ridgid formats, highly scripted, are trying to preserve or regain the assumed success of AA’s past. This fundamentalist, back to basics movement is a powerful set of ideas. I have yet to see anyone recover from these types of ideas. If we only “follow the precise directions,” we could become effective again. The irony is that it may well be such a back to basics movement that is stifling AA.
      It is mainly in quoting from the big book that these ideas have taken root and grown like a weed. The part that sucks is that the big book itself touches on plenty of other ideas: scientific, philosophical, psychotheraputic, and a humble acknowledgement that the book was just a beginning: “This book is but a chip”, “We know but a little”, “The broad highway”… “More will be revealed”.

  6. Denis K says:

    Thank you for this well thought out comment David and welcome to AA Agnostica.

  7. david m says:

    Count me as one of those bemused by the idea of a publication supposedly addressing the concerns of atheist and agnostic members (or perhaps more especially, prospective members) bearing the title “Many Paths toward Spirituality”

    I wandered into my first AA meeting as an atheist in December of 1982, and remember distinctly the feeling that I had stumbled into some kind of stealth Billy Graham scheme of some kind.
    Happily I chanced across a couple of members who had something to say about the power of this program, especially once you progress (or in my case are driven by your own discomfort) beyond the 3rd step.

    During my first 10 years in AA it was not at all uncommon to find groups which did not require the chairperson to operate from a printed “cheat sheet” which demands adherence to a set format of reading and recitation of prayer(s) which, around here in Colorado anyway, take up close to 20 minutes of a one-hour meeting. And those first 10 years were spent in Texas, which while not exactly the dead-center of the Bible Belt is certainly no hotbed of unbelievers.

    Even with that, though, there were plenty of meetings where the chairperson du jour decided to simply begin with a moment of silence, the preamble, then launch into the discussion right away.

    I can’t remember the last time I attended a meeting which was that simple.

    I *can* remember having to bail out on a couple of what I considered my “home group” after the group conscience was colonized by those insisting on recitations of both the serenity and the lord’s prayer along with the seemingly endless reading of damn near anything they can lay a hand on.

    Back then people just sat around looking serious during those droning recitation rituals. Now I notice several people surreptitiously tapping away on a smartphone beneath the table.
    Pretty funny, really.

    Anyway, onward.

    One would think that the AA pooh-bahs would be delighted not only to accommodate, but to celebrate the successful sobriety of our atheist and agnostic members.
    I honestly can’t imagine a more powerful testament to the power of the AA program and the fellowship from which it sprang.

    But it seems that’s not the case, a further argument in support of the idea that what actually motivates many devout believers is not the certainty of a divine being looking out for their personal interests, but a hidden doubt about it. But that’s just my own rather private diagnosis, I don’t want to challenge or even critique the methods of anyone who is sober.

    This comment began, in my own mind at least, as some short remarks about the prospective pamphlet, but I see now it grew somehow.
    Perhaps the pleasure of finding this website, which I did not know about until just the other day, and the opportunity to just kinda let it all hang out for a minute is responsible.

    Glad you’re here.
    Glad I’m here.
    Glad we’re all anywhere.


  8. Cron says:

    I tend to cringe as much in meetings when folks start talking about “spirituality” as when they talk about their god, and am tired of hearing the moronic comment “Religion is for those afraid of going to hell…,” or the one about “sitting in church thinking about fishing.” So I understand the concerns raised by the title of the new pamphlet. And yet if we had to wait for the GSC to develop an “enlightened” or “broad-minded” view of how AA works, our children’s children’s children would still be waiting. So I will eagerly await the release of the pamphlet,and not judge it too harshly even if it falls short. My version would be viewed as too extreme anyway. In the meantime, I will continue to try to balance out the voices of the bible and big book thumpers with Jim B’s story, as well as my own brand of irreverence. And when confronted with the comment “Is nothing sacred to you,” blithely reply, “To the contrary, it is all sacred.”

    • Robert C says:

      ideas of god and spirituality can also be viewed humanistically….as natural products of our species

  9. Tiff K says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Beth re: the title of the brochure. Titles are important, and this mentions neither agnosticism nor sobriety. Why would an atheist seeking sobriety even open a pamphlet with this title?

  10. bob k says:

    The pamphlet won’t be perfect, but it will be progress. I’m optimistic that it will “widen the gateway.” Those who fought against the existence, even the very idea, of such a document were both vociferous and vicious in their opposition.

    The fundies lost this one, and a lesser person than myself would be reveling in that alone. Party on, Garth!! WOO HOO!!!

  11. Andy R. says:

    Roger – about that long-awaited pamphlet…do you know what the content actually is? If I recall correctly (granted, a big IF), General Services is secretive about drafts.

    It wouldn’t be much of a victory if the pamphlet ends up being as condescending and disingenuous as the BB’s “We Agnostics” chapter. (“We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him.” ‘Imagine life without faith!” “We finally saw that faith in some kind of God is part of our make-up.”)

    Hope you’re right but can certainly understand Fred’s skepticism about General Services becoming more inclusive.

    Again quoting We Agnostics, “as a celebrated American statesman put it, “Let’s look at the record!” 🙂

    • Roger says:

      I have not seen the pamphlet – which will be published in July – and I understand the skepticism and concerns expressed. I really can’t believe that the Conference would be so dumb as to mimic in any way the Big Book’s We Agnostics chapter 75 years later but, you know, only time will tell. The record is not good, if you read this Introduction to Don’t Tell, and as you have correctly noted. We will provide a full and honest review of the pamphlet just as soon as it is published.

      • Andy R. says:

        yes, I have no doubt you will give a complete and honest review – this site continues to be a refreshing resource in assessing AA as it really is, beyond all the clichés and dogma.

        But as Beth suggests, the weaselly-worded title change alone doesn’t bode well. Have the feeling they’ll have further watering down of the supposedly secular message contained within, but, since it’s secret, we’ll wait and see! 🙂

  12. fredt says:

    Page 44, bottom of first paragraph…. only a spiritual experience ….

    AA is never going to change. Those of us non-theists accept this and have move on toward recovery using the process. To the Stoics, god was a concept that stood for the unknown force of nature, logic, reason, and all the unknowns. We can think of it as a handle for the unknown something, in modern algebra the equivalent of “x”. My belief system does not require anyone to believe as I do. Is it time to move on with recovery and join/start a free thinking group?

    • Roger says:

      The timing of your comment is not good, fred. Last weekend, after some 40 years of inaction on the matter, the General Service Conference voted to approve a pamphlet supportive of nonbelievers in AA called “Many Paths to Spirituality.” It will be published in July. Every thing changes, it seems, sooner or later. With the fellowship, later is almost a Tradition.

      • Beth H. says:

        I will not criticize this new pamphlet because I haven’t read it, but I am very disappointed in the title. I am not on a path to spirituality. I’m here to stay sober, be a better human being, and help others. The definitions of spirit, spiritual, and spirituality that are relevant here mostly fall into two categories – being concerned with supernatural beings and religion, or an inherent quality/essence present in living beings. I’m not on a path to the first one, and the second one does not have a path leading to it; it’s innate.

        I hope the contents of the pamphlet are welcoming to atheists and agnostics, but the title, to me, is just about as off-putting as if it were, “Many Paths to God.” How about something like “Many Ways to Grow in Sobriety?”

      • Robert c says:

        That’s awesome, Roger! What a celebration of the, “broad highway.”

      • Robert C says:

        Hey people!
        Beth I like your comment and I think you are on point. But in my experience, the innateness of spirit is part of the very heart of this problem, addiction to alcohol… Most people, especially newly sober alcoholics, are in a state of separation from their essential nature, resulting in great alienation and confusion. Our spiritual self is so much a part of who we are that we over look it, and make this search for spirit a rarefied “pursuit.” This convolution is like a ship mistakingly taking sail one degree off course, thus landing far from our destination.

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