Hello. My name is Quinn, and I am an atheist.
I am also a (not very anonymous) recovering alcoholic, which makes the aforementioned atheism difficult to maintain in the face of fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous. And it requires a fair amount of mental contortion and gymnastics if one intends to put into practice any of the principles on which most recovery programs are founded, while maintaining one’s non-belief.
I suppose what I ultimately seek is fairly common: a well-integrated and coherent view of the world, of my place in it, along with a strong sense of the integrity of the foundation upon which I ultimately build my beliefs. Also paramount is my desire to function as a full and useful member of society in a way that I did not as an active alcoholic. I am well aware that my atheism is not unique within A.A., but most others I have met do not feel the cognitive dissonance between said atheism and participation in recovery programs as I do. Many are what I term “Eh-theists”: they believe in no god nor in any “Higher Power,” but cannot be bothered to argue or care much about the implications of their non-belief, or to look too closely at it in the face of the demands of recovery approaches. I cannot respect this position.
Let me back up a little. I was raised in the wilds of Alaska by two secular humanists (who also happened to be psychologists). The rebellion of my early years thus took the obvious track of full-fledged fundamentalist Christianity, much to their amazement and consternation. As a very young child, I was exposed to fundamentalism by extremely religious neighbors and extended relations, and in my young naivete, I bought the fear of hellfire they were selling hook, line and sinker, as the saying goes. Why I latched onto a religious obsession is still not clear to me, but I suspect it has something to do with my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which as a child did take the form of strange superstitious rituals. My father’s response, in particular, was priceless. He never ridiculed or rejected me: he simply refused to let the matter rest there. He would constantly engage me in what he called “jousts,” where he would question, challenge, and otherwise poke holes in my beliefs so that whatever happened with my religiosity, I would never cease examining it. This had the cumulative effect of giving me the tools I needed to free myself. My doubts and struggles to reconcile my beliefs with what we know about the world thereby increased and reached something of a fever-pitch during my senior year of high school.
As a side note, I would also like to be clear that my parents were people of such compassion, integrity, and self-awareness that I never, even in the worst of my delusions, bought into the lie that one needed God to be good. My parents’ morality was always far superior to that of any religious system, and I early on awoke to that fact.
My eventual atheism was not arrived at hastily, or lightly. By the time I was 18, I had come to suspect that the universe is neither benevolent nor malevolent, but indifferent to us. It behaves in every way as if it were not conscious. I distinctly remember the moment this dawned on me. I had been clinging to the last vestiges of my god-belief for some time during my first year of college, but that year picked up a book on evolution with an illuminating, if hypothetical, chapter on abiogenesis. The description of what was then understood about how the first self-replicating molecules, and even cells, could have come about through the blind laws of chemistry was so clear, even for a lay-person like myself, that I was forced to admit my growing awareness of the obvious possibility that no interference was needed from any ‘designer.’ The resulting relief and sense of wonder were profound and defining for me.
This non-belief, which sat comfortably with me for many years, was first seriously challenged when I entered A.A. nearly 9 years ago.
Any ‘old-timer’ in Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you that without a Higher Power of some kind, your chances are slim to none. And recovery is no joke, this is desperate stuff, so one is apt to listen carefully when one first arrives, shaking, with the wreckage of your life strewn about you.
This idea is often framed as a choice between you being ‘in charge,’ or ‘God’ being ‘in charge.’ Either god is your higher power or you are.
At this point, I point out that as an atheist, I certainly believe in many powers ‘greater than myself’ – depending of course on how you define ‘power.’ The sun’s ability to generate heat far exceeds my own. The gravitational force of a black hole is far greater than any force I could generate. But none of these superior forces are in any way concerned with me or my well-being, so the dichotomy as presented is a false one. This is part of what drives me crazy about AA and the “good old-timers” is their absolute insistence upon two things: bad reasoning, and an injunction against “thinking too much.” Absolute bane, for me.
Of course, the hypothetical ‘old-timer’ is likely to offer that this Higher Power can be anything you wish – a tree, a dog, a bearded old man in the sky, the ‘Spirit of the Universe,’ any concept you can imagine in combination with any personality (or lack thereof) with which you wish to imbue it. Loving, stern, judgemental, you name it. A veritable spiritual smorgasbord from which you can pick and choose as you like. If you still balk, you can even make the recovery group in which you participate itself your “HP,” it doesn’t matter. After all, here is a group of people who (hopefully) are maintaining their sobriety together in some way that they couldn’t do each alone. Clearly, something is going on.
Of course, in one sense this is intended to lower defenses built up against the idea of spirituality by making it more user-friendly. Having problems with that religion of your past? No worries, mate! You can make up your own religion, and it will still save your skin!
This immediately made me suspicious. If the content of your beliefs doesn’t matter, and can vary with an individual’s whims, then clearly it is not the content of the belief that is saving anyone. Otherwise, only people with certain religions or concepts would recover. But this is not what we see in practice. And if the each person’s belief content diverges and is incompatible with that of the others in the group, it cannot be the “truth” of any specific belief they hold that provides the saving grace. Somehow, the act of believing itself seems to make the crucial difference, whether or not the object of that belief is real. But…how can that be? Can a belief in an object that doesn’t exist effect any change in anyone whatever?
At this point, I suspect that the effectiveness of the HP concept in recovery groups is pure placebo. Somehow this belief in belief is helping people find inner resources of which they were previously unaware.
My further idea is that the HP exercise is the first training some of us have in deflating our egos – and most addicts and alcoholics are supremely egocentric. I know I am. Our hypothetical ‘Old-Timer’ is likely to point out, “All you need to know about God is that it’s not you.” I suppose it is possible that it allows one the space and humility to ask others for help when one’s own resources fail. It trains a person to look beyond their own petty agendas to the care of others and to the idea of a ‘greater whole’ than that circumscribed by one’s own small designs. I think it even, in its obsession with prayer and meditation, trains one to mentally rehearse good behavior and positive reactions to real-life situations and to go beyond the idea of one’s own limitations. After all, the command is to pray for the resources to do the “next right thing,” whatever that may be, and never for one’s own desires. Surely this is training in refocusing one’s energies towards more constructive behavior.
But all of this effort spent translating the spiritual beliefs of AA into non-delusional reality begins to wear on one. And the data I’ve seen on the results of 12-step recovery programs is unimpressive. I fear to toss the whole thing out…if nothing else, I do know that simply having a support group of any kind, comprised both of fellow sufferers and of professionals, is crucially helpful in maintaining sobriety. But I cannot continue to try to contort myself into a shape acceptable to the program of recovery. I suppose at this point, I’m not sure what to do.
By the way, never let anyone tell you that AA is “spiritual” and not “religious.” Five minutes spent reading the “Big Book” will convince you of its thoroughly religious origins. AA does not require adherence to any particular beliefs per se, but they have their own threats of hell-fire for detractors: the specter of relapse, easily invoked against those that would question any of the 12 steps.
Is all of this (the concepts used in recovery) what I like to term a ‘functional delusion’ – one which allows us to operate in a healthy way, in spite of an otherwise grim reality? I suppose, however one tricks oneself into it, if there is really nothing out there, then these ‘unsuspected resources’ must be coming from me, somehow. Can you get at these resources without believing in a god of some kind?
I certainly think so…but maintaining this in the face of constant pressure from the group is exhausting. And alienating. Ultimately, I will have to find these answers for myself, and take responsibility for them. And since I value integrity above group-identity, it may be that I simply have to continue my resistance. Perhaps I can even be of service to others with similar difficulties.
In the end, what is clear to me is that many of the concepts used in recovery programs are impossibly flawed, and research needs to be done on what is actually keeping us folk sober, in spite of the delusions.