The “Don’t Tell” Policy in AA

Fifty Chosen Articles:
Number Three.
Originally posted in January 2012.

It’s about not being able to be honest at a traditional AA meeting if you don’t believe in a God. You have to keep your mouth shut.

The reality of all of this led to the publication of two books by AA Agnostica. The first is Don’t Tell, published in 2014, which contains 64 stories and essays posted in the first three years of AA Agnostica. And the second, published a year later, is Do Tell, which contains 30 stories, an equal number by men and women, all about their recovery without a male Christian deity.


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

11 Responses

  1. Monique N says:

    Thanks for helping me gain perspective. Am 2 yrs sober and starting to be able to look at the primary trauma which contributed to my addiction – the fundamentalist evangelical Christian indoctrination of my formative and young adult years. As I begin the process to deconstruct those dangerous narratives, I am finding an unforeseen challenge in maintaining my own personal growth in sobriety while feeling lost in life with regards to AA’s version of recovery. I am branching out and joined a recovery from religion group and am starting to read agnostic and atheist literature. It’s both terrifying and freeing to let go in this way and to get to choose and embrace whatever I feel resonates with me.

    Finally learning what To Thine Own Self be True means to me.

  2. Mike O says:

    Thanks for your comment and your support, David! I must say, though, I DO have to give some of these mainstream meetings credit because at least they give someone like me, a person who has largely moved on from the orthodoxy of AA, a platform to still share freely my own “experience, strength and hope.”

    The lady who introduced me at the beginning of the meeting, a woman I’ve seen around the rooms for years who’s in her 50s, got sober young and has over 30 years of sobriety and is VERY tied to a more literal interpretation of the Big Book and “the program”, knows my shares in the recent past have been more off the reservation. I do try to always tie it back to alcoholism and recovery and I never mean to disrespect other people or where they’re coming from. She nervously laughed as she said, “well, I’m looking forward to what Mike has to say. I know he has some years under his belt and he’ll have something great to say.” I laughed as well, knowing that I was going to quietly, respectfully but firmly stand my ground and speak my own truth.

    As someone who started off as a true blue full believer in almost all parts of the program I do appreciate their discomfort and I don’t seek to antagonize anyone, certainly not personally. I remember myself how uncomfortable I’d get when from time to time I’d hear challenging shares, especially since many of those came from “wet” or drunk alcoholics who sometimes showed up at meetings and rambled endlessly about unrelated nonsense while they truly DID “bash AA”, in those cases because they really weren’t well at that moment. Those memories have made me make sure that as I’ve slowly and carefully moved on from parts of AA that I did so NOT out of resentment, spite or any toxic attitudes but truly because I had honest and sincere philosophical differences with the program. At this point, I take criticism from more orthodox AA members with almost a degree of affection because I fully remember what it was like back when I was a true believer and how hearing someone like me back then would have been irritating to me as well.

    AA has ironically taught me patience, maturity and tolerance I didn’t know I had in me and in ways I didn’t expect.

  3. David W says:

    Thanks for sharing Mike. I really think we need to widen the gateway in AA away from the traditional find god/higher power, get a sponsor, sponsor others, memorize the Big Book, treat alcoholism as a spiritual disease, read only to conference approved readings narrative that holds AA back from evolving an effective tool for the 21th century.

    I’m grateful for people that have the courage to get up in traditional meetings and challenge the status quo in front of thumpers who are probably turning green as you speak and can’t wait for the meeting to end to they can confront you and let you know you’re failing and are going to die in your alcoholism if you don’t get on the prescribed program.

  4. Mike O says:

    The last mainstream AA meeting I went to a few weeks ago was a meeting where I was asked to lead. During my story I mentioned that I’m an agnostic and that I use a variety of tools in addition to AA for my “program”, including Agnostic AA, SMART Recovery and CBT with a licensed therapist. I mentioned that I meditate but don’t pray, that I go to far fewer meetings now that I have almost 10 years of sobriety and have largely moved on with my life, that I spend more time on hobbies, friends and family rather than compulsively working on my “program” (thanks sobriety!), that I’ve slowly regained confidence in myself to handle my own affairs and that while it’s nice to come back, visit and share my experience and listen to and learn from others that it’s also good to take some of the training wheels off of life.

    The first share afterwards was a guy who said “I used to think I was an agnostic too” but then found a Higher Power of his understanding once he “committed to working the program” and now didn’t believe in religion but believed in God and by the way had over 10 years of sobriety (so much for “no crosstalk” LOL). After the meeting, he and a couple other guys invited me out to breakfast (it was a weekend morning meeting) and I politely declined. I don’t resent them or blame them or anything else. However, the expression, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail” kept coming to mind. We’re often taught and encouraged to look to the “old-timers”, the people with several sponsees and “into service”, those well into “double digit” sobriety, who really “work the program as it was written”.

    Nowadays, when I listen to a person with 20+ years of sobriety who STILL refers to themselves first, foremost and primarily as an alcoholic and that their “thinking” is alcoholic, that their whole character is “alcoholic” and that they’re still constantly having to “maintain” their supposed “spiritual condition”, that doesn’t seem like “recovery” to me. I used to “want what they have”, mostly because when I was early on I was still desperate and I thought I was SUPPOSED to want what they have. No longer. I’ve found my own voice and for that I’m MOST grateful.

  5. Bob K says:

    Classic — one of the best EV-AH!!!!!!!!

  6. Geordie H. says:

    As an active AA member 40 plus years sober, I have often thought how disingenuous AA as a whole has been to agnostics and atheists. Sure we have a chapter to them, but the message of “the hoop you have to jump through is wider than you think” (Step 2- 12×12) and “You can if you wish, make AA itself your higher power” are really precursors to a whole new belief system where “God as you understand him, now is a whole new concept” Step 3.

    I don’t ask “him” in my morning meditation.I do put it out there to the power of the universe and I am forever grateful to all those different Groups of Drunks. 😉

    Change is a process in our Fellowship and I was happy to hear that at this years GSC, that in our preamble…a fellowship of Men and Woman… is now just “people”.

    Here to pressing on getting rid of the “hims” (hymns??) 😉

  7. Lois says:

    I have always been open about being gay in meetings. Our World Service Rep interviewed me to see if I felt uncomfortable or had encountered any discrimination as a result of being openly gay and if so, what would I suggest. I told her no on the openly gay part but that I felt more discriminated against for not believing in a deity, especially a male deity. This made her uncomfortable and she implied that this was a topic that could not be broached. I have been told that I may not change any wording when I read the 12 steps. I simply stopped reading them and eventually left the group.

  8. Lech says:

    I have always been open about my agnosticism in AA. Never has anyone taken me to task for it. Once someone at the Alano club in Vancouver said to me that it was brave to be open about it. I don’t think it’s brave at all. There are quite a few of us, although many don’t admit it in meetings.

  9. Lori says:

    My husband and I have outed ourselves as atheist and agnostic. It starts conversations which, for the most part, have been accepted by our fellowship. Of course yesterday, I actually made a comment about the God of my upbringing not being my greater power in AA and that there is no mystical creature in the sky watching over me. People thanked me afterwards. But they ended with the Lord’s Prayer still of course, with the introduction of “who watches over us?” I just smiled and held my silence.

  10. Lisa M says:

    Precursor to today’s Woke-ism for sure. Thank you for the good review. We are asking and you are telling!

  11. David W says:

    Thanks for the article Roger. Luckily because my AA experience has been primarily in secular meetings, I’ve been able to avoid the bigotry and intolerance that seems to rear it’s head in many traditional meetings. That being said I cringe when I read articles like this one or listen to the horror stories of people who have been harassed and invalidated when their beliefs and approach to recovery differs from other members. I’ve never had a problem separating my approach to recovery from what others do. AA seems to have a really weird co-dependency dynamic where some people believe person A’s recovery depends on what person B does.

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