Do Tell! and One Big Tent – Two Books of Stories by AA Atheists

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By Roger C.

It all began four years ago.

In September of 2014 an article was posted on AA Agnostica with the title A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

It was written by life-j, a Northern Californian originally from Denmark, who had diligently searched the archives for stories written by nonbelievers and published by the Grapevine. At the time the Grapevine was 70 years old, having begun publishing the “experience, strength and hope” stories of alcoholics in 1944.

There were, frankly, not a whole lot of stories by atheists and agnostics that had been published by the Grapevine. But life-j discovered that a total of 39 had been published over the years with the first, An Atheist Speaks Out, published in May of 1962. As he put it: “Now, wouldn’t this collection make a wonderful book?”

Life-j suggested two possible options in his article:

…a crew of us here at AA Agnostica asked The Grapevine if we could publish at our own expense a book with the non-believer stories we had found and give any profit to the Grapevine. We’d be every bit as happy if the Grapevine published it itself…

Not surprisingly, the Grapevine refused to allow us to publish the book.

A Grapevine Book

We also wanted as much input as possible from others. So along with life-j’s article we included a questionnaire. You can see it on the right. The most important part was the Comment Section: “Tell us why this book would be helpful”. And the responses were super.  When “submit” was clicked, the form was automatically forwarded to the Executive Editor and Publisher of the Grapevine.

But we didn’t stop there.

The questionnaire was also placed at the end of two other articles posted on AA Agnostica. One of those was by John L and was a terrific review of the Grapevine book for LGBT AA members published that year called Sober & Out: Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender AA Members Share Their Experience, Strength and Hope. These were articles published by the Grapevine between 1975 and 2011.

We also placed the questionnaire in another article by an AA atheist published by the Grapevine in November 2014, and re-posted on AA Agnostica, called From Believer to Non-Believer.

The responses to the questionnaire as to why we needed a Grapevine book for atheists and agnostics were superb. Obviously we can’t share them all, but here are three typical ones:

I would like to feel more included. My quest for sobriety is as valid as a person who believes in God. A Grapevine book without constant reminders that I must have a higher power or believe in God would be very helpful.

Patrick W.

It would provide many stories of how one got and stayed sober without the religious entity, God, and without an assumed external/nebulous force, a Higher Power.

Dianne P.

Please, PLEASE: it is an embarrassment that such a book has not yet been published.

Ernie Kurtz (Author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous)

There were hundreds of similar comments. And, as mentioned earlier, when “submit” was clicked they went directly to the Grapevine. We also put them together and snail mailed them to members of the Board of the Grapevine. (You can read some of them at the end of life-j’s article A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics.)

So. What happened?

The Grapevine Board met in January 2015, which it does every year as it prepares for the General Service Conference, held in April. It would need the permission of the GSC to publish such a book. And here was their response to my letter:

Thank you for sending the request for “A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA.”

Your request was presented at the AA Grapevine Board of Directors January 29, 2015 quarterly meeting. The Board reviewed the request with great interest, appreciation and lengthy discussion. The Grapevine Board made the decision not to forward this request to this Conference.

The answer was no. You can read the full letter here: Grapevine NO.

We were deeply disappointed. It seemed totally illogical for them to refuse to ask the Conference to publish such a book.

And that resulted in another article on AA Agnostica: No Grapevine Book for Atheists in AA. An article that we shared, of course, with the Grapevine.

But we weren’t done.

Do Tell! [Front Cover]“Dammit,” we thought, “let’s publish our own book!” And that’s how we ended up publishing – in mid-April 2015 – Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

The book contains 30 stories, and because we were determined to avoid the sexism of Bill Wilson and the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, 15 are by women and 15 by men. The Foreword is by the well-known writer, Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbelievers Higher Power.  She was also one of the featured speakers at the first secular AA conference in Santa Monica in 2014. I wrote the Introduction to the book to explain at least one of its goals: Reshaping the AA Culture.

It is, if I may say so, an excellent book. (Its title is based in part on an earlier article, The “Don’t Tell” Policy in AA, published three years earlier in January 2012.)

Here are just a couple of typical comments (from Amazon USA) about Do Tell!:

It is so nice to know all the various paths that one can follow to belong as a full fledged member in AA without a belief in an omnipotent god. Too long have we kept still about our beliefs in order to try to fit in.

I just finished reading this last night. Unbelievable stories! I have never felt so certain that I belonged in AA as I did when I was turning these pages. Knowing there are others out there who think and believe as I do, but who also believe that Alcoholics Anonymous is the best route to sobriety, is extremely comforting and reaffirms my own desire to stay sober. It’s about time!

I have been struggling for years with the religiousness of AA. This book helped me to become more comfortable with my non beliefs. I look forward to reading more like this.

All of the authors of the 30 stories were, of course, regular readers on AA Agnostica, where the request was made for stories of their experience, strength and hope in recovery in AA. The only requirement was the length of the articles, which we tried to keep at around 2,000 words. About half of the articles were by people who had already written articles on AA Agnostica and, since Do Tell! was published, six of the authors have written their own books.

Now: back to the Grapevine part.

We continued to implore the Grapevine to produce a book of their previously published articles by atheists and agnostics in AA. To begin with, we sent copies of Do Tell! to as many officials as possible both at the Grapevine and at the AA General Service Office. Some nice and genuine thank you letters were received as a result.

And let me add this: no bad-mouthing was ever done, on either side. That would have damaged our ongoing discussion, perhaps irreparably.

Thomas B, a regular author on AA Agnostica, wrote a few letters to the Grapevine. Finally, the Grapevine Board met again on January 28, 2016, almost exactly a year after their refusal, to reconsider our request and here is what the editor, Jon Witherspoon, wrote to Thomas B:

Thank you for sending the request that Grapevine Inc publish a collection of previously published stories by members who are atheist and agnostic…

Your request was presented at the AA Grapevine Board of Directors January 28, 2016 quarterly meeting. The Board discussed your request and will forward your title suggestion along to the Conference for approval.

Yes! The Grapevine said yes! You can read the full letter here: Grapevine YES.

One Big TentThat letter was some two years ago and we are pleased to report that the Grapevine book, One Big Tent: Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience strength and hope, will officially be published on September 3 of this year.

We also understand that copies of the book will be available at the International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) in Toronto at the end of August. Jon Witherspoon, the fellow who wrote to Thomas B and who, as the Grapevine editor, put the book together, will also be attending the conference. I certainly look forward to meeting him and asking him all kinds of questions about One Big Tent.

So that’s it. That’s the story of Do Tell! and One Big Tent and how they are related to each other and to the secular movement within AA. We could go on and on with similar stories about progress being made within AA but well, let’s leave that for another day…

We look forward to reading One Big Tent, a book of stories by atheists and agnostics previously published by the AA Grapevine.

And, of course, we also look forward to re-reading Do Tell! one more time.

19 Responses

  1. Helen L. says:

    Thank you Roger and AA Agnostica for including so many of us in this long process. I did not realize that our Do Tell stories had been read by the Board which had circulated the recent member questionnaires in our Area 11 meetings about whether to compile & publish an official book of atheist stories. I look forward to reading One Big Tent.

    • Helen L. says:

      It occurs to me now after I wrote this that the questionnaire was not about the One Big Tent publication itself but about rewriting an AA pamphlet addressing concerns of atheists & agnostics.

  2. Teresa says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! To all who speak their truth, “even if your voice shakes”.

    Inclusion vs exclusion is so vital to continued growth in AA.

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Roger, this is a significant milestone, which demonstrates that with perseverance and commitment to follow-through any small group of dedicated people can move mountains within AA !~!~!

    Here’s a quote from your article that highlights for me an essential ingredient, along with patience and perseverance, when dealing with the upside down triangle of the AA General Service Structure:

    And let me add this: no bad-mouthing was ever done, on either side. That would have damaged our ongoing discussion, perhaps irreparably.

    I am most privileged to have been part of this endeavor to insure that the reality of the Responsibility Declaration in AA will be available to anyone who has a desire to stop drinking, regardless of belief or lack thereof.

  4. Bill White says:

    One Big Tent will be an important milestone within the history of AA and the history of addiction recovery. Thank you for outlining the chronology of advocacy that made this possible.
    Bill White (Author, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Recovery in America)

  5. Larry K says:

    This news makes me smile.

  6. Jeb B. says:

    Perseverance is certainly one of the inner character strengths we atheist members have tapped into and I have the greatest admiration of all who have it to such good use. The recent approval of AAWS publication of “The GOD Word” is another encouraging sign of willingness, honesty and open-mindedness taking hold on some places. Gratitude abounds!

  7. Neil D. says:

    Over my 36 consecutive years in the brotherhood, I have come to believe that an all knowing higher power would not create beings so they can work their way into hell. I have listened to all the cliches, that we do not have room for here, and none are at all logical. For years I would not share my beliefs but I realized that I must, in order to let members (new or old) understand there is more than one way to stay sober in AA. I came to AA to stop drinking and I have gotten 100% of what I came for. Don’t Drink and Go To Meetings!

  8. life-j says:

    Thanks, Roger, and for leaning on them with all your organizational skill.

    And I love the cover. Spirituality seems kind of like that, awe with a tinge of alienation.

  9. Wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for the tenacity and commitment to inclusivity for all. Well done! I anxiously await this groundbreaking publication by the Grapevine.

  10. Pat L. says:

    I send my heartfelt thanks as well. This is needed so badly. I am 34 years sober and yet I often feel my experience is not welcome in meetings where the only path to sobriety is through a higher power and god’s intervention.

  11. Bob F. says:

    Roger and everyone else: congratulations!! What an awesome testimony to commitment, perseverance, and service to those of us who believe differently. Thank you! I also do have a question about the book’s formatting. I am legally blind and am dependent on audio books because reading printed text is very time consuming, even using a CCTV. Is there any remote possibility that AA Agnostica books could be made available on CD or in MP3 format?
    Thanks for considering this.
    Bob F.

  12. Pat N. says:

    Thanks for the great news! And many thanks to Roger, life-j, and the others who made it happen! I can hardly wait.

  13. Michael W says:

    So encouraged that you have worked so hard to progress our ideals. Thank you for believing that we matter!

  14. Congratulations on this successful effort. I’m looking forward to having a copy of this book.
    Linda Kurtz

  15. Deb T. says:

    Looking forward to “One Big Tent” being published in September… that’s not very far away! Will the books be available for purchase on this site? Thank you for this well-written article about the history leading up to this most current publication has come about.

  16. Neil F. says:

    To all who have contributed to this effort over the years, please accept my heartfelt thanks. This, I think, can be considered a major milestone. Well done!

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