Journey To The End Of Night
Adventures in Active Addiction and Recovery — A Philosophical Perspective

Recovery Without Deity — The Convalesence of an Atheist

My name is not important and I’m a dope fiend, been one for over twenty years – that is, until I bottomed out and checked into a rehabilitation center almost exactly 180 days ago today. Better check yourself here – if you want to read textbook program material you ought to just click off this page right now. I’m no Nazi! Although I know damn well I’m an addict and have been around the rooms of NA/AA/CA (Narcotics, Alcoholics, Cocaine Anonymous) some time now, I am not, nor will I ever be, wholly indoctrinated. Along with a number of other addicts besides myself, I have a lot of issues with the twelve step approach and with the literature in general that I don’t care to discuss inside meetings. Inside a meeting, members share – we don’t debate, criticize, question. So a whole plethora of questionable ‘truths’ are taken as given. Quite often I feel the message is ‘Here are the beliefs you need in order to recover. Believe it or don’t – your choice. But you can’t recover unless and until you do.” That’s fine for meetings which by nature are centered about applying the principles of the literature to daily life. Meetings are not philosophy classes. Nor should they be. However, I feel a real need to ‘step’ back and engage in a critical discussion, particularly with respect to the importance of God. Having worked the twelve steps once already myself, I’m not unqualified to do this.

My spiritual awakening took me back to atheism.

I might sound a bit harsh to the believers out there but try to look at it from my perspective for a moment. In treatment (I have never heard of a treatment center that was not AA based) I listened to counselors sound off ad infinitum about AA being a ‘spiritual not religious program’. On my second day they took us to a meeting downstairs. We closed with the Lord’s Prayer. That’s not even non-denominational, let alone ‘not religious’. Our culture is so steeped in Judaeo-Christian spirituality that individuals who’ve never been exposed to ‘alternatives’ (many of which I’ll explore here) tend to feel their principles are universal. Atheists and agnostics in the program are not only implicitly expected to change, like the guys in the stories who solve everything on their knees, but are expected to want to. That’s just not me.

The term ‘higher power’ frequently appears in the literature but is replaced in the steps by ‘God’ — except for in number two.  It’s easy to see where Bob and Bill were going with this — the restoration to sanity by a ‘higher power’ must involve coming to believe in God because when we get to step three suddenly the ‘higher power’ talk disappears and it’s time to ‘make a decision to turn one’s will and one’s life over’ to God.

As an atheist (right now the sole definition of atheist I want to get into is one who does not believe in the existence of anything even remotely resembling the judaeo-christian/muslim deity partaking of a ‘loving and caring’ nature — more philosophical and metaphysical definitions of ‘deity’ don’t merit the personal connotations the word ‘God’ bears) I think of this world as a savage garden, a beautiful, but for the most part, hostile, place wherein resources are limited, the competition over them endless and brutal, the only warmth, love, and compassion to be found that which we find it in ourselves to offer one another.

It’s important to state that my purpose here is constructive. My intent isn’t to bash the program but rather to be of service to addicts who may already be reaping the benefits this support system has to offer but are sitting on steps because the ‘god-talk’ turns them off. A fundamental tenet of my belief system is that spirituality and atheism are NOT mutually exclusive.

I’ve created this blog to share my experience of active addiction and of recovery, to provide information, links, and feeds to valuable resources, and to focus particularly on my approach, as an atheist, to the twelve steps. It’s not my intent here to argue for or against any particular form of spirituality but simply to share my own.

Furthermore, it’s important I mention that although I do speak as a member of a twelve step program, I do NOT speak as a representative of the anonymous fellowships. The views expressed herein are wholly my own. A man I hold in high esteem once said, “An addict with a great idea is a terrorist”. It is for that reason that I strongly encourage my readers — especially those new to recovery or still in active addiction — to seek out as many perspectives as possible, read everything out there on the net and in the bookstores, and discuss everything with everyone.

Be forewarned that, now and again, I find myself unable to resist engaging in off topic rants. I’ve just set the focus but will never hesitate to deviate from it, contradict myself on a near daily basis, meander here, there, everywhere, indulge myself in whatever musings suit my fancy any given day. Today, the above concerns remain foremost in my mind. I’ve got a lot of the vagabond philosopher in me and am as open and experimental about this stuff as I once was with mind and mood altering chemicals. You’ll see me bouncing all over the place — this is primarily the journal of a recovering addict.

Nothing more. Nothing less…

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13 Responses to “Recovery Without Deity — The Convalesence of an Atheist”

  1. As an addict of some twenty-odd years, at the end of his rope-self destructive and suicidal-I dragged my ass into some twelve step meetings with a level of willingness sufficient to keep me clean for a year and a half. Being alive is of paramount importance to me given that I have little to no faith in a life after death. A readily available support group of recovering addicts has in a sense saved my life-for which I am very grateful. I vacillate ,honestly, between agnosticism, atheism and theism-call me a confused individual. I have approached working the twelve steps, attempting to view the “God” point of view as a symbolic approach which allows me to look at the results of my work more so than the theoretical truths espoused by anyone else or any organization. I have also shared in meetings about what “God has done for me,” only to feel ashamed of a certain level of dishonesty therein. It is not uncommon for people from either AA or NA to approach me either privately or share in meetings that the core of recovery, whether we like it or not, is God. Personally, I do not presently see it this way.The support of many open-minded people in both fellowships has deepened my trust in humans, at least on the level of recovery, so much so that I sometimes think I might have faith in humanity which gets into the realm of the abstract. Now, Is this actually Higher Power?In my heart of hearts, much as I would like to believe that there is a benevolent power to which or to whom I can turn, I believe in the power of humans, which may be a greater power but not a higher one. I also believe in the physical powers of the universe being a collective generator of spirit if you will, maybe electrically, electromagnetically, which courses invisibly throughout life on our planet. This too in my way of thinking, distorted as it may be, is a greater power-again-not a higher power. For me it is important to realize that my own egoic power has its place in a universal hierarchy in order to be open minded enough to receive help. And I am receiving it. I am much happier today not being enslaved to my addictions to the degree I was two years ago. My health was in the shitter and I was on the brink of losing my home and family. Desperation opened my mind to programs which I had always viewed as cults. I guess, to a degree, I am still concerned that I am connected with a cult, but I am alive and I am willing to make intellectual and philosophical concessions to that which keeps me alive. In spite of the programs’ literature insisting that they are not religious, I find the words
    “God” and “Him” to be undeniably religious. Does this keep me from attending meetings and working the steps. No. I will be the first to admit that I am intellectually inconsistent, but I would rather be wrong than dead. This kind of flexibility on my part and the love extended to me through those open-minded enough to respect my beliefs or lack thereof-these things in tandem have made me a survivor. I found after numerous attempts at staying clean on my own that I benefit greatly from a support group. Now that I have stated my own point of view, I wish to extend my gratitude to the anonymous author above for expanding the dialog on the subject of atheism and recovery. My personal identification with his/her entry has aided greatly my understanding of recovery. Thanks.

  2. Well. Thank you guys for opening this blog. It wasn’t that easy to find. Hopefully we can get more entries from others like us. I have been using drugs for twenty years. I had 5, then 71, now 98 days. I really needed a forum like this to express my- for lack of better word- lonliness when it comes to twelve step members because even though most dont necessarily believe in religious institutions they beleive in god. Now that drives me nuts. God of my understanding? That sounds like they want me to make up one of my own. As many do. This just kills me.If it wasn’t for bibles, toras and qurans we would not have this need to even beleive in somthing that never communicated to us outright. I don’t know where man came from and thats o.k. Evolution sounds like the most beleivable but still is only a small piece of the puzzle anyhow. I get tired of hearing people thanking god for things that they or other people did in the first place. And why would- if there was a god- he be looking over them and not 5 year old children being molested or raped by priests by the thousands. Or look after people dying in natural catastrophic events by the millions. Why do they think they are so special? As if they cured cancer or somthing.This is mass madness. And some of these meetings go off with people saying “my god does this and that”. Or “theres no way I should have lived though the things I went through”. As if they fell off the world trade center. They REFUSE to look at any other evidence or reasoning. Now I’m not yet educated. And I know I cannot stay sober without these meetings and some of the steps . But Iget so tired of listening to people talk about an imaginary friend like a child would. I’m no scientist but In my spare time I read about science or watch the science channel . And it seems like the most inteligent people around know this is crazy for the evidence of science discrediting or explaning the events taking place in the bible. I did some research as a kid also. Father why are there any dinsours in the bible. You know the crazy answers you get. I wonder if im crazy for not being crazy. Thanks nanojune

  3. I meant “why aren’t there any dinosours in the bible.

  4. I’ve been clean in NA for 17+ years and it’s taken me almost as long to settle into a concept of a higher power that works for me. In the end, it’s a arduous interweaving of my non-theistic beliefs with a highly theistic-sounding process. I have to translate not only the language but the meaning itself. However in almost every instance, the 12 steps are brilliantly flexible to accommodate me.

    I don’t believe in many of the basic frameworks: a spiritual void, a “higher” power, a “loving and caring” god, turning it over to anything external, being restored to sanity, etc. Etc. Yet each of the concepts can be reconceptualized to my own experience and understanding to accomplish the same functional effect.

    You can find many gems of tolerance in the NA Basic Text. Like “we must be honest about what we believe”; “for those of us who don’t pray, meditation may be our only solution”. I really am free to take what I need and leave the rest. That said, l must work the steps and I can’t work the steps if I am still using.

    The genius of the 12 steps is that it is predicated on one addict helping another. My sickness is centered on my instance on separating myself from humanity. Only others addicts understand how my twisted thinking can seem perfectly normal. Bill W. didn’t get this program right until he figured out that part. Only another broken head can help fix another broken head when it concerns addiction. None of it even works without that component.

    I can now even get on my knees to pray with others even if the act itself is utterly meaningless to me. It is merely an opportunity to recognize that I do not exist outside a universal context. Even if I were to start praying the Lord’s Prayer in meetings, it would only be symbolic of my acceptance that their prayer is just a part of my world which has no relevance to me. But can you imagine how horrifying they would find it if they knew that my understanding of what they revere means nothing more than to me than a dog biscuit. I keep it to myself except when to let others who might be struggling with theistic approaches know that the steps can work for them too.

    Find someone who understands the resiliency of these steps to accommodate non-conventional thinkers. These are all individual journeys; how great is that?

    Way past my bedtime. But I loved these posts and had to participate.

  5. I am reminded of a story in the bok ‘Faith, Hope and Courage’ Volume II, by a woman (athiest) who laughed at the idea of prayer. Her sponsor told her that she could pray to anything, it did not matter what, and that she did not have to believe in God, she just had to ask for help. To make fun of this idea, and being a dominatrix by profession, she took one of her sex toys and put it up on a pedestal, then prayed to it. To her astonishment, ‘it worked’.

    So replace the word ‘God’ with any word of your choosing. Don’t get hung up on semantics. No one in the program cares what or who you pray to. It is between you and ‘it’. The main idea is that you have accepted that you need help from a source that is outside of yourself. Namaste.

  6. I’m really struggling with NA attendance as an atheist. Whenever I share about my thoughts on theis it feels like I’m a medieval heretic and the spanish inquisition arrives. I’ve been told that I won’t have a successful recovery unless I come to believe in a higher power (= God). Others have told me that god doesn’t have to mean God and can just mean anything you want, if so why use the word in the first place? Just a ramble at the moment, I’m trying to think this through but I thought I’d put this out there and see what suggestions anyone may have. Thanks, Peter

  7. I think what I hear from most of you is that 12 step recovery is inefective at best. In my opinion it is much worse bringing organized addiction recovery to afull stop and even reverse . Toput it more bluntley it is killing us and those we love. Stop talking bullshit and be honest what Ineed is to get togethor with like minded addicts,in,recovery anybody up for strting a network were we can find each other love to here from you

  8. It looks like this thread has been inactive but I felt the need to share my experience with this. I am a recovering addict. I have just over 9 months of clean time and am in the process of working my the 11th step of Narcotics Anonymous.

    I remember my first meeting. I sat and listed to the reading and heard the words “God” and “Higher Power” over and over again through out them. This caused me much dismay. To be honest I had no intention to stop using or attend meeting. I had a friend who was a member and came to see what it was all about. I continued to use for months.

    After some months had passed I found myself in such a condition that I simply could not go on as I was. I called my friend who picked me up and took me to another meeting. Once again I was disheartened by the mention of “God” in the readings. However things were different this time. I had a measure of desperation which allowed me to be open minded to what was being said. The loving and welcoming environment the meetings provided was a unique experience. I find it ironic that in the past, as an atheist I would look at people with clearly defined or rigid religious beliefs as closed minded, but at the same time I have a difficult time listening to the beliefs of theists. It most likely stems from having the beliefs of others jammed down my throat my entire life.

    I attended meetings for several weeks and participated in fellowship before and after meetings. As I got to know more people in my home group and became more comfortable I began to talk about my concerns with them. I learned who had similar beliefs to myself and discussed with them at great length my feelings and how they made the program work in their lives. I also found a sponsor who could relate to my point of view and help me tailor the program to my beliefs.

    As I work through the steps I discuss any concerns I have with the framework of the steps with my sponsor and we determine how best to get around them. The result is a program in my life which not only keeps me clean, but shows me how to be a good person and stop acting solely in selfish self interest.

    There is an obvious judaeo-christian undertone to the program which is a result it’s adaptation from AA. But the bottom line is that it works. I know many recovering addicts with a decade or more clean time who view the term “God” as a purely symbolic and abstract reference. What has been working for me is to look at the program as a power greater than myself. The 12 steps restore me to sanity.

    Turning it over in the 3rd step was an arduous process. I have an entire composition book full of manic scrawling s which can attest to that. The fact of the matter is that I make my choices and deal with the consequences. I face the situations that I find myself in, do the best I can, and leave the rest to work it’s self out naturally.

    For me it’s important to remember that it is not abnormal for me to be surrounded by people with drastically different beliefs. It is also important to practice tolerance and acceptance towards such people and to hope for them to respond in kind.

    In short, don’t let words like “God” run you out. You will find that people who work the steps tend to strive to be nonjudgmental and mostly accepting. Best wishes!

  9. Greetings,

    Relevant to the discussion, I’d like to share an essay on atheism and the 12-steps here–

    http://everything2.com/user/thalio/writeups/12-step+program

    To get the most of this writing form (noding, they call it) check out some of the links.

    Hope this is useful, and best to all.

    • The previously posted essay presents a problem that always comes up when trying to make the steps work as an atheist: you have to do alot of restructuring. By the time you are done, nothing makes sense. Also, you are working a different program than everyone else.

      I don’t want to have to “replace” god with anything (even a dildo, as stated above) or work around the fact that both the NA and AA books are basicly saying “leave it up to god.”

      Must be a better way.

      • Joe,

        Yes, if your understanding of a power greater than the obsession to drink is not God, you have to do more work in AA. And it’s good work, and it pays well.

        Does not using God as your higher power result in “nothing makes sense”– as you boldly assert without a stitch supporting argument? Not in my experience or the experience of about a dozen thirty year plus sober atheists I am personally in contact with.

        That a supernatural Being beyond understanding “lifts away” your obsession to drink and your character defects–now this by definition makes no sense. It’s just lot of hand-waving, really. It explains nothing.

        But I UNDERSTAND the program as accomplishing all the following–

        Replaces your warped impulses to drink with a commitment to principles you can love ( this is taking contrary action). Uses the wisdom of those who’ve gone before you to address a shared problem. Addresses the behaviors that made life unlivable in the first place. Changes the meaning of abstinence from liquor from “oh poor me, I can’t get relief” to “I have a chance to save lives now”–Victor Frankls’s Logotherapy, in other words.

        No, this is a long way from nothing makes sense. Now things are really starting to MAKE sense. Is this a different program than “everyone else” is working? Well, if I meet you on the corner, and we take two entirely different routes because we start from different places, are we working the “meet you on the corner” program differently from each other? Of course not. We’re using the same principles to get to the same end.

        Bill and Bob and the old-timers worked out a way to replace your old thinking with something more reliable and then go forward toward addressing the underlying causes of your need to get loaded. They knew what worked, and they had some rather odd theories about why it did. They theorized it was a Father Protector, Creator of the universe at work, when it was more a case of trust in God but tie your camel. The tying your camel part is the operative action in not losing the animal. Always has been.

        I think it’s time we updated the “God theory” of sobriety, since people are and have been using the program without God since the days of James Burwell and the first NY group.

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